Flying to West Africa, Northern Latin America, and the Caribbean to discover rare records, with the view to create re-issue albums with great aesthetics and brief histories of your favourite periods in musical history sounds like a pretty good job, right?
Well, that's exactly what Miles Cleret does to earn his crust with his Soundway record label. By actually flying out to discover obscure records he has ended up documenting whole cultures on the brink of bygone. And, in doing so, also discovered whole histories of musical experimentation, one-hit wonders and sky-high egomania.
The one point Miles insists on clarifying is how dull 95% of his job is, but we can be sure that the other 5% is probably a bunch more fun than you'll have in 100% of the time at your job.
Vice: How did you turn something that a lot of people consider an obsessive but recreational hobby into flying all over the world pretending it's a job?
Miles Cleret: I grew up in a house full of records. My dad was a big record collector and I remember how magical it was discovering new recordings and holding them in your hands. The essence of this whole crate-digging—call it what you like—the inspiration comes from looking for music to present to people who don't know it, and I suppose the label and everything that happens with it is just an extension of that.
So what made you go from there to reissuing such specific eras?
Recordings from the periods that we tend to reissue are in real danger of dying out from being neglected and overlooked. There is a tendency for people to think that something made in the seventies will never be endangered, but that can easily be the case. Some of those records were pressed in really tiny numbers, sometimes only two, three, four hundred copies, and 95% of them lie smashed in pieces on the ground or scratched to high hell, or were never sold and melted down to make the next record. So, there's a real chance these records will never be heard again unless somebody puts them out or focuses on them. It's a kind of audio conservation I suppose.
Is it working?
Well, 15 years ago some records were absolute paradoxes, these weird little things that might turn up in tiny second hand record stores in New York, London, or Paris. Now they are easier to get hold of, and the more people that get into them the more there is a market for those kind of records. Record dealers respond to that. The more compilations that people like myself do, the more people who are solely in it for financial reasons see an opportunity to sell records.
So you basically just wanted to find and release stuff that people didn't already have.
The way your source music is like crate-digging taken to its logical conclusion. Some people must be green that you get to do that all day?
I guess so, but there's always a tendency to romanticise it. Hunting for records is actually a pretty dull thing. You get taken into some pretty odd areas and some places are pretty risky, but to be perfectly honest 95% of it is extraordinarily frustrating. You spend hours hot and bothered, going through the process covered in sweat and dust, day after day, often with very little reward and lots of mosquito bites. But the 5% of it is really fun and makes it worthwhile.
And what constitutes that 5%?
Just finding great records. I think it's inevitable that there will be a new generation of people who don't give two shits about the record and sleeve in their hand. They just want the music. But for me that's what it's all about.
Despite the fact that they are all over the place, many of the scenes and genres that you have documented seem to have occurred at around the same time.
Well, we are doing one from Colombia, which is 70% 80s, but it's no secret from looking at the records I've put out that the music I'm into is generally from 1955 to 1980. It was a very prolific time before music became disposable and easily digitised, but after a time when it was very much controlled by a very small select few. From '55 to '80 lots of small runs of obscure records in different styles came out and people really got a chance to experiment before the music industry, digital technology, piracy, and cassette tapes came in and killed it off. If I were to go to Outer Mongolia looking for 60s and 70s records I wouldn't have much luck. Going to the countries themselves makes you get the way the music moves, intertwines, and goes back and forth.West Africa, the Caribbean, northern Latin America, all the big musical movements of the 20th century developed in an intertwined manner. So Latin music has its roots in African music. But then that music goes back to Africa in the 40s, 50s and 60s and influences African music in turn, and then goes all the way back again. Similarly, Colombian music in the eighties was influenced by sailors from Nigeria and Ghana bringing records back to Colombia so that they could be played on Colombian soundsystems. Jamaicans did the same with American R&B records, and scratched the labels off them to see if people could see the difference. That then influenced ska, which in the 70s massively influenced music in England. So it just goes back and forth.
How does sourcing obscure records vary from country to country?
In Latin America old music is very much alive. In Colombia they have much more of a culture of sourcing old music. But in Ghana or Nigeria, a lot of people have sort of wholesaled, cancelled, or dismissed old music. The people who were around at the time—it stops with them. If you meet them sometimes they've got the stories, but quite often they've forgotten them, they get the stories wrong, or they are just gone. The truth exists in the record.
But records that no one wants anymore.
Not in Nigeria. In Colombia you will find young guys in their twenties who are just as into finding old records and playing them out as I am. There is a ravenous DJ culture in Colombia, especially for old African music. So when word got out that I had a bag of African records I was willing to trade for Colombian records, I was mobbed. My phone didn't stop ringing, people turned up to my hotel and followed me around when I was out.
Are there actually that many stores, or even crates to look through in places like Bogota?
There are virtually none in Africa anymore, but there still are a few record stores in Colombia. There are some people who sell records from their garages, there are still one or two collectors who you find out about who sell off stuff that they don't want anymore. There are guys on the street who have these little stores just set up on the pavement. I tend to just turn up in a place and start asking around though. One thing tends to lead to another.
When you are on the hunt, do you prefer finding the artist or the record?
The record. Records don't always phone you asking for money. Some artists are great, but some are a pain in the arse and have a much bigger sense of their worth than is realistic. People somehow can't quite believe that you are only selling X amount of records and just assume that their music must be selling hundreds of thousands of copies and you owe them money all the time.
Sir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar Boy Superstar ticks pretty much all the boxes as far as album titles go. Which category did he fall into?
He is one of the small few that fall into the category of being everything I hoped he would be and more. He's a national hero; he's regarded as a real keeper of Benin culture, a true ambassador for highlife music, and has managed to be an actual superstar at the same time.
Was he still a superstar when you met him?
Well, he picked me up from the airport, and drove me to his house. He lives in a house called Superstar Highgate on 1 Victor Uwaifo Avenue.
Sounds pretty starry.
The first room you go into is the Victor Uwaifo Hall of Fame. So you have this big room covered in pictures, bits of memorabilia, newspaper clippings, records and guitars, even the bicycle he used to ride to school on, all in this room in his own house. You go from there to the Nigerian History Room, which is a tour through the history of Nigeria and its leaders over the years. That's followed by the Chamber of Horrors.
What, like a carnival ride?
No, we sat down and watched various notorious armed robbers being shot by a firing squad. He then took me into his concrete aeroplane he had built onto the side of his house. It's exactly like being in an aeroplane, with windows all down the sides. But in the cockpit there was a piano. He just sat in the cockpit and played for me as we sat and drank beer. It wasn't your ordinary day.
Surely a lot of the records you find are in unsalvageable condition?
Sadly, yes. They are often not just broken, but the recording is so terrible it's unusable. Technology being what it is today, you can actually take out the noise and scratches. But you can't add anything that wasn't there. Your hopes rest with the record.
So if it's broke you can't fix it.
Yeah, you can try and pull out what is there as much as possible, but if it's not there you're stumped. There are records out there that I've been desperate to find clean copies of that I have just never found.
There's a 45 by a band called The High Grades called "Jumping Cat" that I've been looking about ten years for but never found. I've got a copy but it's far too mashed to do anything with.
Is that your Holy Grail?
One of them.
Palenque Palenque is out now. Get it here.