Label Spotlight: Sofrito

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Ever-dependable in their pan-global approach to dance music, Sofrito push a tropical mandate that’s far removed from bikini clad women on deep house Youtube channels. Their interpretation of tropical is much more literal, shining a light on the music from the Caribbean islands, African countries not included in the afrobeat boom and any other creative source that gets your hips shaking.

Celebrating 10 years since their inception, we caught up with co-founder Hugo Mendez reminiscing on the last decade and looking forward to a bright future with a 60 minute mix of exclusives and label favourites.

Catch the Sofrito 10th Anniversary party in London (16th April), withAfricaine 808, Alma Negra and John Gomez.

10 years – congratulations! What’s your overriding emotion as you approach such a big milestone?

Happy to have been able to keep it going for so long! And proud to have managed to keep putting records out and throwing parties.

Let’s take things back to the start, with Sofrito’s origins as a party. What’s the story behind setting them up and what did you aim to achieve with the parties that wasn’t being offered in London at the time?

The parties started at the tail end of 2006 – a friend had heard of an interesting space available for parties so we thought we’d put one on. I’d just moved back to London from Brighton so was up for seeing what would happen.
There’s always been nights playing this kind of music – people like John Armstrong began in the early 80s – but we wanted to present the music in a context that related to the kinds of clubs we went to growing up.

What was the catalyst in developing Sofrito into a label?

The label started came out of the edits we were making in the studio. Frank runs the Carvery mastering studio in London so we would cut acetates of tracks – either edits or because the original, quiet pressings didn’t stand up on a system – and play them at the parties. The first releases were a bit of an experiment – putting out tracks that worked well at our events to see if other people would be in to them.

Outside yourself, has there been anyone involved who’s been pivotal in Sofrito’s development as a party and label?

The label is run by me, Frankie Francis and Lewis Heriz, but there are lots of people that have been a part of Sofrito right from the outset. The parties are/were run by me, Jono (aka the Might Crime Minister) Frankie Francis and Lewis Heriz. Aside from, that the sound was initially supplied by Nik the Amp (who had a sound system called Millennium at the time) then later on Steve Bedlam helped us out, and our friends Khwaja, Sean and Grant ran the bar. Jack Yglesias and Luzmira Zerpa from Family Atlantica have played at pretty much every event, not forgetting Kwasi, our resident MC. Rickard Masip from Stockholm and Miles Cleret from Soundway often play at the parties too. Jono has taken more of a back seat in recent years as he got a proper job, but the events are very much a family affair.

Could you talk us through the aesthetic and artwork of the label and what you like it to say about the music? Is it always Lewis Heriz who takes care of that aspect?

All the artwork has been produced by Lewis right from the start. He’s an integral part of Sofrito and could probably explain his approach better than I can, but I guess the idea is to present the music as neither new or old and so the artwork has a foot in both camps, with an emphasis on hand-drawn/printed material.

Sofrito has released a diverse range of music from around the world, but do you feel there’s a common tie that runs through the releases, be it in a philosophy or music policy?

The philosophy has always been to release music that makes people dance, and to be accessible to people outside any niche genre scenes. We’re not an archival label releasing heavily-researched compilations, rather (we hope) a label that presents styles that are perhaps a little overlooked elsewhere and that work on the dancefloor. Ultimately the releases reflect the kind of music we play at Sofrito sessions.

With that in mind, how do you go about A&Ring for releases and what do you look for in a Sofrito release?

Most of the releases are tracks that we’ve played a lot at different events and think people will be in to. We try to look for sounds that are a little out of the ordinary, that wouldn’t necessarily be pigeonholeable on first listen. Records like the 12” from Congolese percussionist Jean-Marie Bolangassa (percussionist for M’Bamina) – tracks that he made for dance classes in Paris in the early 2000s that (for expediency) were made using drum machines rather than a full band. The end result sounds like a curious techno record, not necessarily what you would expect.

Looking back over the last 10 years, what are some of your proudest achievements?

The best has always been the London parties – I guess it’s great to have gone from some seat-of-the-pants parties to having records available worldwide.

And what have been some of the greatest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?

I guess that would also be some of the early parties. They were often in pretty freestyle places so everything from the power going in the middle of the night to unannounced visits from the powers that be contributed to some pretty urgent problems.

With global sounds being much more widely accepted on Western dancefloors in the last 10 years, have you noticed a change in the way Sofrito has been received? Has it caused you to adapt in any way?

It’s great that there are more and more people listening to music from all over the place. We haven’t noticed any massive changes, although it’s great to be able to play in a wider variety of clubs.

Let’s play Desert Island Sofrito: what three releases would you take with to cover all musical bases, moods and occasions?

There would have to be a copy of our first Tropical Discotheque EP – something that still gets played all the time and sums up the vibe pretty well. Our first compilation for Strut has a lot of our dancefloor classics on it and covers a few areas, and the last would have to be the Ivoire Promotion EP – the Bazare D. Pablo track (‘Nassima‘) is one of my all time favourites.

Have there been any tracks or artists that got away over the years of digging, licensing and A&Ring?

Lots! It’s rarely straightforward licensing tracks so there are plenty that escaped…

You’ve got a big diversity to your catalogue, from original EP, to edits, reissues and compilations across a few sub labels. Could you unravel the many different forms of the Sofrito catalogue for us? Is there any method or running order to the various series or are things released as and when they’re finished?

We’re first and foremost a 12” label, but we started to release 7”s last year and have a few albums in the pipeline. For the Super Singles (the 12”s) the idea is to release music that is 100% for the dancefloor, whether old, new or edited. The idea is to put out 12”s that have two or three strong dancefloor tracks to save space in the record bag!

We also have the Island series that promotes different sounds from different islands, mainly across the Caribbean. The idea was to highlight the different styles and rhythms from the islands, rather than the usual approach which is to see the area as a single homogeneous entity.

Could you tell us about the mix you made for us? 

The mix is a rough and ready selection of tracks that are more on the clubby tip, recorded in the basement here in Paris. It’s a mixture of Sofrito releases and older bits, and ended up with a fair amount of African tracks – some 80s Soukous and other, weirder sounds, most of which were also recorded in Paris. There’s a track from Erick Cosaque and his group Voltages 8 that will be out on Sofrito shortly. It originally came out on CD in the early 90s and is a killer Gwo Ka track (traditional music from Guadeloupe) but has an added drum machine and a pretty strong groove.

Bringing things up to the modern day, what DJs, artists and labels are exciting you at the moment?

It’s a great time for more globally-oriented sounds, there are lots of things coming out all the time. It was great to work with the Alma Negra crew for the most recent Sofrito 12”, they have some other interesting things coming in the near future. Producers like DrumTalk and acts like Africaine 808 and the Blip Discs guys are really good. For me the Owiny Sigoma Band is one of the most interesting things to come out in recent years. Also the Principe label in Lisbon.

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You’ve got a 10th Birthday party coming up next week. What can we expect from that?

We’ve invited some of the friends we’ve made along the way to play on the night – Africaine 808 will be playing a typically incendiary live show, and Alma Negra and Rickard (Tropical Treats) will be playing as well as John Gomez who is a long time Sofrito attendee. There are people coming from all over the place – people are flying in from Sweden, France, Germany and New York for the party and we’ve been preparing a lot of spiced rum for the night so it should go off with a bang!

What’s coming up in terms of releases over the next few months we should look out for?

Next up we’ve got two 7” instalments in the Island Series – both from Dominica, which is hands down one of the greatest places in the Caribbean and has a great music scene. One is a Cadence 7” from the Swinging Stars and the other is from Gordon Henderson who has also been a great help with contacts and advice. After that we have an EP from Voltages 8 / Erick Cosaque. After that we’ll have to see!

And finally, where would you like to see Sofrito by the time it reaches its 20th birthday?

I haven’t thought that far at all but it would be great if people were still up for dancing at our parties and contributing to the vibe.

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