By Andy Morgan
It began with a bunch of friends who shared a dream and set up a café venue in the Matonge district of Brussels, where most of the immigrants from The Congo and other parts of Africa hang out. They called the place ‘Le Mukalo’, because the old Congolese lady who sold sandwiches in the same building before the café existed came from a little village called Mukalo, in the Kasaï region of the Congo.
At the heart of the scheme was a pair of adventurers, Michel Winter and Stéphane Karo, both with Hungarian origins and both mad about music from off the beaten track. They had this little band called Les Djinns, who played Arabic music, both classical and popular. “You’ve never heard of them,” Michel Winter assures me twenty years later. “We were the house band of Le Mukalo. The two Moroccan waitresses sang and danced with us. There was an oud player and I was on clarinet and various Moroccan wind instruments. After a couple of years, Le Mukalo went happily bankrupt, because we were having great fun but we weren’t business types. I don’t know which one of us was the craziest, it depended on the time of day I suppose!”
It was whilst they were searching for music that Les Djinns could play that Stéphane and Michel stumbled on a CD by a gypsy band from Romania in a music shop. Stéphane was about to go to Romania on holiday so this discovery was timely. It was the last year of the Ceausescu regime and people thought he was mad to even think about visiting a country in the bloody process of disintegration and rebirth. But he went anyway and found an extraordinary tradition of gypsy music in the village of Clejani. Most amazingly, it was still blissfully alive and untamed by nostalgia or the heritage industry. Stéphane made a little recording and played it to Michel back in Brussels.
The pair fell in love with the deranged virtuosity that poured out of the scratchy tape. After the Romanian revolution in 1990 they went back to Clejani, assembled a star team of players picked from the pool of over 200 village musicians, and brought them over for their first European tour. It was decided to call this orchestra The Taraf of Haidouks (which translates roughly as ‘The band of outlaws’).
“One thing led to another, as they always do,” Michel remembers and the explosive success of Taraf transformed Michel and Stephane into two of the busiest managers on the global music scene. Tours, TV documentaries, records, films, film soundtracks followed in quick succession over the next decade. Taraf de Haidouks collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin, filmmaker Tony Gatlif, and eventually, in 2000, featured in and performed on the soundtrack of the movie ‘The Man Who Cried’, starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett and Harry Dean Stanton. Depp became a die-hard fan and presented the band with a BBC Award for World Music in 2002.
By 1992, Michel was already bemoaning the Kafkaesque nightmares of obtaining visas for musicians whose culture, nationality or skin colour didn’t conform to European notions of the ‘desirable’ traveller. He and Stéphane were never the type to gravitate towards bands who were either ‘obvious’ or easy to manage, as the roster that they put together illustrates; Purna das Bauls (baul musicians from India), Kocani Orkestar (another gypsy orchestra, this time from Macedonia), Tartit Ensemble (traditional Touareg group formed in refugee camps in Mauretania), Kuba Ensemble (judeo Muslim musicians from Azerbaijan), Mahala Rai Banda (gypsies from the ghetto of Bucharest and the military brass band of the Rumanian army), Konono No.1 (scrap yard virtuosos from Kinshasa, DRC), Kasai All Stars (traditional musicians from the Kasaï region of The Congo). It’s not a list for fair-weather showbiz Svengalis or part-time dabblers. In 1996 Mukalo changed it’s name to Divano Productions.
During these two decades of prolific activity, Stephane and Michel found a constant and innovative partner in the Belgian label Crammed Disc, who released award-winning albums by Taraf of Haidouks, Tartit Ensemble, Konono No. 1 and Kasaï Allstars. The Belgian sound-engineer and record producer Vincent Kenis was also at the creative heart of many of their groups’ recordings. Divano became one of the most successful management and production teams working with traditional non-rock / pop musicians from outside Europe and North America. The list of awards, films, albums, tours and collaborations attributable to them is long and impressive. But by 2008 strains had begun to appear in the relationship of the two founders, perhaps unsurprisingly if you consider the constant battle to promote obscure music which the pair had somewhat recklessly volunteered to fight for twenty years.
The inevitable split eventually came to pass and Michel left Divano to form a new company with his partner Isabelle van Oost, who had just returned to Belgium after three decades living in Sao Paulo. Remaining faithful to their beginnings, Michel and Isabelle decided, in consultation with their Congolese musician friends, to call the new company Mukalo Productions. The list of bands under management initially comprised Konono No.1, Kasaï Allstars and Tartit Ensemble. But there was a new band from Kinshasa on the roster who were fast emerging as one of the most talked about new artists from Africa in years. Staff Benda Bilili are street musicians, some of whom were disabled by polio in childhood. In 2009 they won the WOMEX Artists’ Award and a new documentary about them ‘Benda Bilili!’ was aclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.
“Our aim is to promote the music we like,” Michel states with characteristic simplicity and directness. “They’re not especially trendy styles of music but they’re original in the way they’re played and performed and in terms of the life-style and cultures they represent. We don’t look for unknown artists per se, but somehow we always end up with them, artists who, in the beginning at least, don’t even excite a great deal of interest back where they come from. That was true of Taraf of Haidouks, for example. But for us these bands have a universal significance and potential, even if that potential isn’t necessarily huge. Our goal is simply to make these band better known, and to create a solid base of fans for them in worldwide.
Stage presentation is of major concern to Mukalo, and that is where Isabelle’s experience of set and lighting design becomes especially relevant. “I often find that, especially in world music, groups are more or less thrown onto a stage and nobody cares too much about what surrounds them,” Michel explains. “I think that’s a shame, because there are many things you can do to enhance their presence. It’s not about stealing the limelight, but just doing simple and sober things that add to the impact. We’ve created stage sets and lighting plans for Konono, Staff and Kasaï Allstars.”
Apart from the Tartit Ensemble, all the Mukalo bands come from Kinshasa. It was Crammed Disc who first asked Michel to go out to the Congo and check out Konono No.1. “Kinshasa is full of diamonds, real diamonds but also musical ones,” says Michel. “As soon as you leave the usual beaten path of soukous, ndombolo and stuff like that, things get more interesting and intimate. And there are very few managers and producers who bother to go out there and look. But the Congo has always been a kind of musical hub for Africa.”
One of Mukalo’s original aims was to transfer the skills of music production, recording, marketing and merchandising from Europe back to Africa. In collaboration with Konono No.1, Mukalo has set up a special rehearsal and performance space called Le Cabaret Sauvage in the Ndjili district of Kinshasa, where the Mukalo acts can work and hang out. Michel and Isabelle have project organise sound engineering, lighting and stage design courses in Kinshasa, looking for any kind of help from International Organisation and other funders. They’re also hiring local art students to design and manufacture T-shirts and other merchandising for Staff Benda Bilili. The beginnings are small, but the intention is clear; Africa must eventually own, produce and control the fruit of its own culture. “Today in Kinshasa there’s nothing,” Michel asserts wearily. “The situation was better twenty years ago. The place has gone backwards and we want to help it get back on track.”
Michel, Stéphane, Isabelle, Crammed, Vincent Kenis are all believers who fight a hard fight at the sharp of the music business, where money is relatively scarce and the problems caused by visa bureaucracy, plummeting record sales, flaky African infrastructure and a host of other challenges are keenly felt.
The race is definitely not for the swift, nor the battle for the strong. “You start out with lots of enthusiasm and at a certain moment…bang! You come face to face with all these problems, which are becoming heavier and heavier,” says Michel. “All of that is a kind of objective injustice but it mustn’t but the brakes on the desire to work with those kinds of bands, from Congo or Africa. That would only be a double injustice. I know that there are those who prefer not to get embroiled in all that’s. That’s never been my attitude, and I never give up. I can’t. Once you’ve dived in and you’ve met and befriended people, it becomes impossible to give up.