Label Spotlight: Mr Bongo

David with MAW & Atmosfear

There’s no denying that over the last year the demand for rare reissues has hit new heights. Why have interests peaked so much you ask? One man says it’s down to a ‘genuine rebirth of vinyl enthusiasm’ – that man is the man with the 45s, David Buttle, MD of Mr Bongo. Having had a hand in bringing some of the most precious and beautiful grooves from Brazil, Africa and beyond direct to your ears and your record bag, his knowledge and appreciation of Latin sounds is arguably unrivalled.

Starting out in 1989, Mr Bongo made homes, first in Soho, and then Shibuya before settling in Brighton. As a label they have made it their duty to make the works of Joyce, Prince Fatty, Terry Callier and Doris to name just a few, accessible to a contemporary audience, and for that we couldn’t thank them enough. Now, they can add a venture into world cinema, two sub-labels and a royalty collection and music licensing arm to their ever growing list of achievements.

We caught up with David to chat about the early days of Mr Bongo, the bag boys of Soho and the records that slipped through his fingers. He’s also put together a mix covering the label’s reissues, new and old, some favourites and forthcoming 45 cuts for your listening delight.

Keep up-to-date with Mr Bongo via their website and on Facebook. Mr Bongo’s latest release, Banda Black Rio’s Maria Fumaca, is available right now here.

Can you tell us what the impetus was behind starting the label back in 89?

It was about discovering the best latin music and delivering it to a club conscious audience. This could take the form of digging, recording, importing….

bongo-london store

And has the ethos changed or evolved along the way? 

Our ethos has always been to release the finest, unique, original music. As we have grown we have expanded our range of genres into reggae, hip hop, soul, funk & jazz, etc. 

The market has also changed significantly in that time. When we started, anything we released would sell at least 5,000 copies – that’s just not the case these days. It’s now fundamental when releasing new recordings that we have supporting promotional activity & radio success as it has become so difficult to push new recordings just on the basis that they are incredible records. They need to have something more about them to be a realistic proposition these days. 

Aside from yourself, has anybody else been pivotal to the success of Mr Bongo?

My role is to plot a future course for the label and to select the releases along the way. Without the Mr Bongo team this could never happen. So I have been very lucky that the label has attracted great people that have inspired me to continue pushing the boundaries with Mr Bongo. From the early days of the Berwick Street shop till the present day. Shouts out to Richard San Jose helping me release old Cuban records, John Cooper a veritable library of Jazz fusion, Huw Bowles the hip-hop legend who helped the store get such a rep for independent hip-hop and old skool, Nick Huggett who always turned us onto those weird things, Kam & Tom hip-hop mavericks, Johnny G & Luiz in the notorious Latin shop, Tony Scratch Pervert who loves his folk, Kev Beadle, James Vyner who helped start our Disorient label in Japan, Dimitri who gave us our first 12inch release, Dai Kurihara the Shibuya who ran our store there with the legend Kenji, Gavin Smith who continued James’ good work on Disorient. 

David with MAW & Atmosfear 2

And to the present day team of Graham Luckhurst aka Greymatter digital mystic, Jane Cudworth aka Lady Jane, Matt Neale (Protoje Liaison officer), Andy Edwards on the design & restoration, Matt Aiken killing the mail order, Sue Mellis Accounts payable, Tracey Murray on the synch, Gareth Badger Ranks supreme diggers knowledge and killer DJ, Chris Young the hardest working radio plugger in the business, and the whole record club crew Gary XXXXXL Johnson, Smooth Ally, Finnish big-man Villa.

And of course all the great artists that have helped build Mr Bongo. To name just a few – Marcos Valle, Joyce, Terry Callier, Arakatuba, Ive Mendes, Incredible Bongo Band, Doris, Protoje, Hollie Cook, Prince Fatty, Horseman, Mr Hermano, Wildstyle, Karol Conka, Ebo Taylor. The list is long.

David with Ray Barretto - opening of our Lexington St Store

When you started there was a real excitement for Latin music sweeping London. You described it as ‘feverish’ at times. Can you tell us a bit about those early days of Mr Bongo?

I would go to Venezuela / Cuba / NYC with 4 suitcases under my arms and on return to be met by dealers & collectors at the airport who would fight over the records. Knives were drawn, friendships were broken. All the DJs / Collectors were constantly looking for the edge, for that record no-one else had. There was for a period, vendors floating around London called bag boys – a motley crew of young men trying to flog rare jazz / latin records to unsuspecting customers (very much like east-end wide boys).

You’ve had stores in Shibuya, London and Brighton, but what feels like the spiritual home of Mr Bongo?

Soho / Brighton / Brazil.

What reissue was the most difficult to pin down?

Actually it was the Orson Welles film Chimes At Midnight. It took me 14 years to get the rights cleared for this one. It was so worth it though – one of the greatest films ever made. 

Were there any where the process was very arduous? 

Sometimes it’s difficult when you think you are dealing with an artist who has the rights to his recordings and you find he has already sold them or he does not own them. You have to tread carefully.

Any releases that hold a huge amount of significance or sentimentality for you?

I guess the records that were hardest in the making like Hanny (Voice of Cuba), which I rerecorded 3 times. Hollie Cook‘s second album which sounded great but took some real hard pressure to finish up.

Any that slipped through your fingers?

MILLIONS. All Jorge Ben LPs! 

What has been your proudest achievement since launching the imprint?

Helping Terry Callier continue to record. Achieving great success with our new reggae acts like Hollie Cook, Protoje, Prince Fatty & Mungo’s Hi Fi. Also bringing Marcos Valle to the UK, working with Bluey, Paul Weller, Masters At Work, and Robin Millar.

bongo-japan store

And what are the greatest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?

I suppose when we had the Soho store and it was loosing money hand over fist you needed stamina to get through the debt mountain, but it makes you stronger and we turned it around with the Brazilian Beat series. 

The musical climate has changed a lot over the years, primarily the dominance of technology, has this changed how you run the label at all?

Only in the sense that you can work from anywhere and have to be very aware of the technologies ability to promote your music and label.

Your releases cover more than just music, what inspired your forays into world cinema in 2004?

To be frank, it was a little bit because we were closing stores worldwide and sales plummeted from 1999-2005. I had a video of a laser disc of Soy Cuba and was determined to release this class Cuban / Russian masterpiece. Then it just took off. We worked with Scorsese, David Bailey and others to help select the best arthouse classics. We went on to release documentaries too, such as Rio Breaks, Tropicalia, and Ginga.

And you have a sub label, ‘Mr Bongo Bass’ – is that still moving in a direction you want it to?

Bongo Bass was something we wanted to experiment with. Our main sub label is Disorient. That was started in Japan and has been going for 15 years releasing music from the likes of Dimitri From Paris, Masters At Work, Atmosfear, etc.

Mr Bongo At Independent Label Market - Spitallfields 2016

This year seems to be a frenzy of rare represses across the board in disco, house and further afield. Why do you think this year in particular has been such a manic time for represses? 

There has been a genuine rebirth of vinyl enthusiasm. 

What’s been the best party you guys have played at, and why?

Too many too mention. The last party in Peckham went off, Womad with MD2, playing both levels / decks at the Mambo Inn at the same time, Favela Chic when Marky had just recorded LK and played it in Europe for the first time. If you come to our gigs you may catch me throwing singles, whistles, and CDs into the audience – we have a of fun with the dancers.

Are there any other labels out there that are really impressing you at the moment? 

Soundway always impress. Hot Casa, PMD, Analogue Africa, Budda.

Could you tell us a little bit about the mix you’ve made for us?

Features tracks from forthcoming album reissue projects, forthcoming 45 cuts, plus a couple from the brand new Mr Bongo Record Club Volume One. They sit alongside a few favourites from DJ sets/radio shows.

What’s on the horizon for Mr Bongo in terms of releases?

A killer Mr bongo record club comp representing what we have been playing at the clubs & festivals over the last year. A Mali comp showcasing the underbelly of classic Malian sounds. Jocafi classic Brazilian samba. Tons more great 45s. Plus new Protoje projects. And much more.

Incredible Bongo Band Boxset

1. Pedro Santos – Flor de Lotus
2. Flamingods – Jungle Birds
3. Arthur Verocai – Na Boca do Sol
4. Celia – Na Boca do Sol
5. Fafa de Belem – Nao Ha Dinheiro Que Pague
6. Lantei Lamprey – Fish & Funjee (Komi Ke Kenam)
7. Gregory Charles Royal – Take A Ride To Heaven
8. Mavis John – Use My Body
9. Hanna – Deixa Rodar
10. Tarantulas – Saiba Ser Feliz
11. Evinha – Esperar Pra Ver
12. Dom Salvador – Uma Vida
13. Banda Black Rio – Maria Fumaca
14. Wal Sant’ana – Que Vida É Essa
15. Eloah – Yemanja
16. Nicoletta – Fio Maravilha
17. Luli, Lucina e o Bando – Dourado da Manhã
18. Joyce – Aldeia de Oguz
19. Arthur Verocai – Sylvia
20. Hareton Salvanini – Viver

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