Cast adrift in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, 350 miles away from the West African coast lies an island that you probably won't have had reason to think of for a while. A prosperous merchant point in the 16th century, its coffers bolstered by the slave trade, Cape Verde was finally wrested from Portuguese control in 1975. Unless you're a scholar of history, a keen geographer, or devoted pub quiz attendee, it's unlikely that the place has dominated much of your recent conversation. One man looking to change all that is Vik Sohonie.
Sohonie, a New York based crate digger, compiler, and aural ethnographer, has spent much of his working life collating incredibly obscure records from relatively obscure outposts around the globe, creating albums that are as much richly diverse encapsulations of periods in time as they are source material for DJs bored by the rigidity of the music that's usually played out in Western clubs.
Describing himself as, "educated in the centers of power, globalized in the margins of the world," Sohonie spent some years working for German archive label, Analog Africa, where he acted as as lead researcher, writer, and editor for the liner notes of multiple compilations, all of which aimed to tell as true a cultural story as possible.
Last year saw Sohonie launch Ostinato Records, an imprint that sees him continuing the work he began with Analog Africa. The first Ostinato release saw him travel to Haiti, in preparation for the fantastic Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960 - 1981, a record which took listeners—myself included—on a voyage into the unknown.
This week sees Sohonie whisking us away to Cape Verde on the immaculate Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973 - 1988, an 18 track excursion in a myriad of styles and sounds, that all coalesce around one major topic: emigration.
Synthesize the Soul is the story of what happens when islands are left and new worlds visited, when inherited tradition rubs against the shock of the new, when cultures begin to merge rather than painfully clash. It is a celebration of the musicians who sought lives in faraway lands but who never forgot where they were from and more importantly, what they'd heard there. These are artists who fled to both Europe and the US, artists who (perhaps) unwittingly left the hidden clues of an alternate electronic history behind them.
I recently spoke to Sohonie over the phone about his methodology, procedure, and love of indigenous music.
When you're on location, what's the actuality of the day to day—where are you finding the stories you want to tell?
I have a degree in history that focused on the African continent, so when I go anywhere I have a historical grounding. When I was in Haiti, for example, it was all about finding the physical artefacts. I might have songs in my head that I've heard on the radio, or been played, but I've got to find the record or the tape or the master reel. After that, there's an incredible amount of information on records and you can use that to join dots and establish a story through records. Then you talk to people, everyday people, and you piece everything together. Then it's time to track down musicians, radio station owners, even people who work for the country's ministry of culture. I connect the dots with music.
You need a great fixer on the ground, and I've been lucky enough to have them in Haiti, Somalia, and Sudan, these are people who've gone out of their way for me. You can't do a project like this without them.
Are these compilations oral histories sewn into records?
Definitely. When you talk about so much of these African cultures, many of their traditional ways of storytelling are oral. There might not be a great amount of recorded history of these musics, but there is a huge oral one. I'm essentially producing a documentary that you listen to rather than watch.
Is it more important than ever that we connect with histories beyond our own?
Having grown up in so many cultures myself, I've always found the two best gateways are the food and the music. They really tell a story in themselves. A recipe can be recreated; once music it's recorded, that's it—there might not be another version of it. Music lets people access a whole new paradigm of thinking. So this new release where I'm putting Cape Verdian music at the forefront of 80s electronic music should shatter a lot of people's perceptions, and they should be able to see the Afro-Atlantic narrative being as important as the American-Atlantic narrative or the Euro-Atlantic narrative. You get to rethink your own view of history!
Synthesise the Soul arrives on the 24th of February on Ostinato.