Label Feature: Les Disques Bongo Joe
Click here to listen to the Les Disques Bongo Joe radio show.
Its name may be somewhat of a mouthful, but it is somewhat fitting for Swiss record label Les Disques Bongo Joe, whose odd, and eclectic approach is deliberately hard to pin down. The concept when launching in 2015, was for the label to explore the contemporary music landscape from the 26 cantons of its homeland, releasing exceptional work by the likes of Geneva rock quartet Massicot. But Bonjo Joe’s musical and geographical horizons have continued to expand, beyond the confines of a single nation or genre. In recent years, the label has offered up music from Dutch-based psychedelic surf ensemble YĪN YĪN, and the minimalist trans-pop post-disco duo Hyperculte. It gets more unusual: There’s also projects from Altın Gün, an Amsterdam-based outfit that merges Turkish folk music with psychedelica, as well as the sumptuous swelling sounds of French drone sensation La Tène. Cyril Cyril, meanwhile, consists of Bongo Joe founder Cyril Yeterian and his buddy Cyril Bondi, who also plays in La Tène. In 2018, the duo released Certaine Ruines, with a sound that incorporated the bluesy, old-world nuances that underpins many of the imprint’s releases.
There’s also an archeological strain to Bongo Joe, which like many of its contemporaries has been known to reissue forgotten gems that flit across continents and classifications, encapsulating Sega, Calypso, Spanish synth-wave, merengue, and folk. For Carhartt WIP Radio Les Disques Bongo Joe boss Cyril Yeterian – who operates the label out of its namesake record store, experimental event space, and cafe in Geneva – has prepared a show that delves into the label’s past, with tracks by Mameen 3, Lalalar, and Massicot, while also showcasing soon-to-be-released songs and compositions by Cyril Cyril, Amami, and the Columbian avantgarde band Meridian Brothers. As usual, we talked to our host about the origins of his enterprise, his very own musical ambitions, the free-spirited vibe of his label, and some additional secrets beyond sound.
Your label Les Disques Bongo was launched in 2015 with a contemporary record by the one-man-project Augenwasser. The second release was the compilation Soul Sega Sa ! Indian Ocean Segas From The 70's. Was it always the intention to launch a label that looks to the past while also highlighting current musical developments at the same time?
Cyril Yeterian: I’ve always questioned myself about the border of the past and present regarding music and recordings history. Human beings started music while imitating nature’s sounds. Since then music has just been a continuum, oral then written. And musicians just learned from what they heard from older musicians, whether they knew it or not. I like the idea that tomorrow you can write the best line of your whole career, thinking you invented something new, but that you may have heard by chance ten years earlier while walking in the street or in a forest. So, releasing music from the past, and the present, sounds obvious to me. Also, I really like when musicians we have on the label tell me that one of our reissues influenced their own music.
What were the formative years of the label like?
Cyril Yeterian: I guess everything started when I was endlessly touring with my old band Mama Rosin. As a musician on the road, nine times on ten you’d have an average day and evening – but once in a while, you’d experience something enlightening. You’d be blown away by the people you meet, amazed by the places you play. You’d be struck by how powerful music can be and how it can bring people together and create one of those moments you’ll never forget in your life. This was the starting point and I felt a need to spread the good word about music I love while starting a record label. I was inspired by labels like Mississippi Records and Honest Jon’s putting out music from today as well as from the past, while also operating as a record store. I wanted to welcome people in a place like our store, which frequently turns out into a venue or an experimental event space.
How did you come up with the label’s name?
Cyril Yeterian: The label is named after George "Bongo Joe" Coleman, a street musician from Texas. He would perform with a makeshift drum kit, made from steel oil drums, and improvised great lyrics in a kind of proto-rap style. Pure DIY. He’s been recorded just once and only one vinyl has been released in 1969. His music is really unique, personal, and inspiring. So I thought it would be a good name for our activities. After we opened, I sent a picture of our storefront to my friend Eric Isaacson (Mississippi Records) who forwarded the picture to George Coleman’s family in Texas. They were very surprised and very happy to know a store so far from where they live was named after their relative.
Does Geneva play a part in the label’s history or could you operate from any place in the world?
Cyril Yeterian: Switzerland has never been an important place in music history. As a musician, it’s always been hard to tour abroad while coming from Switzerland, as no one takes you as seriously as they would if you were American, English, or Japanese. So we learned it the hard way and it gave us a lot of motivation to change this image while developing the label. Few people would expect a Swiss label to gain worldwide recognition. Our country is so small and only known for its watches, mountains, and chocolate. Operating from such a remote place on the musical map made us kind of outsiders, which I like. Rather than being in the middle of a race among dozens of other labels, all based in the same big city.
How important is the record store for your label?
Cyril Yeterian: Since the beginning, the store has been the headquarters of the label. Very quickly after launching, we could no longer stock the releases at the store anymore but kept the store as the main window into the label’s activities. Each time we put out a new album, we fill the wall and shelves with copies and take a picture. It looks gorgeous. Some people discover the label when visiting the store, others visit the store after having discovered the label. Today, we welcome more and more fans of the label, who’ll visit the store as a planned stop on their Swiss or European trip. It still sounds crazy to me.
When you remaster old music, do you have a special person who does the job, or do you choose the mastering in relation to the music you reissue?
Cyril Yeterian: It took me years to find the right person, who I can fully rely on. I work almost exclusively with them. We share the natural approach of how an old sound must be restored and remastered. It’s really important to me that one can enjoy our releases on a Sunday morning as well as making people dance on a Saturday night. Too often when I listen to reissues I think that bass is too flattered and the whole sound has been compressed too much during the remastering process – and I realized I never listen to those records at home. For sure it’s efficient for DJs, but it sounds artificial at home.
Do you have a wishlist of musicians you’d like to see on Les Disques Bongo Joe?
Cyril Yeterian: We’re about to put out the new album of Meridian Brothers, one of my favorite bands on this planet. The release is planned for the 21st of August and we have already revealed the first single (you’ll find it in the mix). Such a crazy band that keeps on experimenting and distorting Colombian traditions. They really deliver new music to the world and each album is a surprise. There are a lot of incredible bands signed on other labels that I wish I could for sure have released on Bongo Joe but diversity is good, right?
How do you find the great contemporary artists on your label like the stunning Hyperculte, La Donna Invisibile, La Tène, or recently Massicot and Mameen 3?
Cyril Yeterian: There are bands I discover when I’m on tour, other ones are side projects or new projects of musicians I already know. Some are playing their first show at the store – for example, Mauskovic Dance Band, Hyperculte, or Amami – and magic happens. Some get my contact details via friends of mine, others are recommended to me by booking agencies we work with, etc etc.
How about your own project Cyril Cyril, what’s the story behind it?
Cyril Yeterian: We’ve been working on our second album for quite a while now. We had to stop the recording session because of the pandemic and recently went back to the studio again. We’re really excited about sharing new Cyril Cyril tracks soon. There will be a first single out this summer and the whole album out this fall. There’s two of us: Cyril Bondi on drums, percussion, and backing vocals, while I play prepared banjo, guitar and provide vocals. We knew each other by reputation for years, each of us evolving in very different music scenes but never having met. Cyril Bondi is a member of La Tène and putting out their records on the label saw us become friends. One day we decided to try to play music together. We just started by improvising and ended up creating our own music.
What projects is the label working on now?
Cyril Yeterian: We are planning to release a compilation from Madagascar guitar hero Damily called “Early Years Cassette Archives”. We are working on the upcoming Meridian Brothers album “Cumbia Siglo XXI” as well. I recently dived into an almost entirely unknown music scene based in Bakou, Azerbaijan – crazy guitars and drum machines. I’m really looking forward to putting a record out and seeing how people react to it. It sounds raw and crazy and hypnotizing. The music comes from cassettes and sounds quite dirty, but I think it’s worth working on it and revealing it to the world. Let’s see! Furthermore, we are working on something relating to the Spanish music scene again. La Contra Ola Synth Wave & Post Punk from Spain 1980-86 is one of our bestsellers and we really wanted to follow up on this. This time it will be another aspect of this very creative period in Spain. It’s gonna be called “La Ola Interior Ambient & Acid Exoticism from Spain 1983-90”. We are also working on various compilations, focusing on Sao Tome & Principe Islands. We just put out LÉVE LÉVE Sao Tomé & Principe Sounds 70s-80s in January and there is so much more to work on. This music was completely unknown and there’s a lot more to reveal.
What process do you follow for new releases and compilations?
Cyril Yeterian: My team and I work very hard. Compilations sometimes take three years to see the light. And they cost a lot before we can sell any copies: Paying royalties, buying flight tickets, sound restoration, interviews, graphic design, and picture restoration. Putting out new bands is almost another job. That’s really exciting and satisfying, especially when the band starts touring a lot and realizes we were a hidden part of their success.
How important are the non-musical components of your releases – packaging, album art, liner-notes, etc?
Cyril Yeterian: I really like DIY and homemade art. In the early days of the label we used to silkscreen print the covers ourselves but we can’t do it anymore. I never say no to our artists when they want to add an insert or add anything special to the packaging. Even if it reduces the profit we’ll make on the sales, I don’t care. What’s important is to put out beautiful pieces of art.
What has been your biggest hit so far?
Cyril Yeterian: Altin Gün’s success is almost unbelievable. They now have worldwide recognition, were nominated for Grammy Awards, and play in the biggest festivals on the planet. We put out Altin Gün’s first album more than two years ago and it still sells very well. We constantly repress it. I guess it became a “classic.”
How did you select the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Radio show?
Cyril Yeterian: I’ve tried to take a picture of what the label is today and spiced it up with some older classics.
2020 so far has been a devastating year in many ways, what was the best thing for you about 2020 so far?
Cyril Yeterian: Despite the very negative context, we’ve just had good news for the store: the city gave us green light to move our activities to a big space in Geneva’s city center. We were fighting for this for many years, as the original store is tiny. We’ll have more space for everything: the label, in-stores, cafe, records. It’s a real big thing that awaits us.
What is the most obscure record you have in your collection and why?
Cyril Yeterian: I’ve got some obscure records but what I’m thinking about is a cassette of Arabic music that is hard to describe. Completely unknown with some great Chaabi-pop tracks on it. I promised myself we’d do something with it one day.
What’s your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change your perception of it?
Cyril Yeterian: I’m quite often dizzied by how prolific and never-ending the music offer is nowadays. I sometimes feel secure in my collection, thinking I’ve got more than enough music to listen to for the rest of my life just with records I own. But curiosity doesn’t leave me and I’m looking for new music all the time.
What are your hobbies besides music?
Cyril Yeterian: Kids, plants, hens, bicycle, politics, friends, theatre, lake Geneva, mountains.
What records from the past shaped your life?
When do you feel most at peace?
Cyril Yeterian: On top of a mountain or sailing on Geneva’s lake
Can you name us a track that currently gets the most rewinds?
What are your favorite places in Geneva and what makes them special?
Cyril Yeterian: Cave 12: home to experimental music that back in the day was housed in one of the biggest squat houses in the city center. Now, they have an official place which became a home for so many people in the underground scene. Bains des Pâquis: old public bath on the border of the lake that was saved from destruction by protests. It’s a place where all kinds of people in our city mix. A very important place for Geneva. Flea Market à la Plaine de Plainpalais (really close to the store). And most of the parks in our city are very beautiful and have very old, giant trees. I love trees.