Interview by John Wisniewski
Born in 1954 in Lusaka, Zambia, and of British nationality, Michael Baird spent his first 10 years in Zambia, then went to England and has been residing in Holland since he was 13. He founded the label SWP Records in 1986. Led the group Sharp Wood from 1986-96. He compiled and produced the monumental 22-cd series ‘Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey’ of African music from the 40s and 50s, released by SWP Records and made field recordings in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, in 1996, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010— six albums so far of unique music also released by SWP Records.
1) When did you form SWP records, Michael and what did you wish the public to hear?
SWP Records was born in 1986, after I had produced an album’s worth of recordings of my group Sharp Wood— with percussion duets and trios. I sent the music to several labels— one said call me in a year’s time, Manfred Eicher of ECM replied that he would give me an answer in 10 months, and some other even said if I was to change some things we would sell more! Well, I didn’t want some halfwit producer looking over my shoulder and the music couldn’t wait a year— so I released it myself, independently: 1000 LPs x SWP 001 ‘Percussion’ and we sold them at our concerts. And I continued releasing my own music— because I wanted full artistic control. My style became known as ‘Voodoo-Jazz’, after some German journalist in a review asked the question “Is it jazz, or is it voodoo?”— I mix up jazz, Africa and abstraction as I see fit. SWP 005 ‘Batonga Across the Waters’ was the first album which I didn’t play on— my field recordings from the Zambezi Valley made in 1996, inspired by field-recordist Hugh Tracey, whose archive I had just visited. I went on to produce a 22-cd series of Tracey’s recordings. Took me eight years. SWP Records releases music that regular labels don’t release— music that I think is important. If someone else has already done it, that’s fine— then I don’t have to do it— but if there is beautiful music out there that I know about and nobody else either doesn’t know about or doesn’t care about, then I feel I have to do it.
2) Any favorite African artists?
I love all honest music— you can hear when someone means what he or she is playing. All folk music is honest music. Africa is full of folk music, although it is under serious threat – from satellite TV stations. I call it ‘the MTV Syndrome: MTV is bad for local music, seducing rural kids to the idea that you have to copy America. It’s about retaining cultural diversity. We are heading as humankind towards a mono-culture, and that’s a sad place to be. But there is some great new urban music from Africa, like the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa, I heard another Congolese group Basokin who were a total knockout, same with the University Of Gnawa from Casablanca, and of course drummer Tony Allen – the sticks dance in his hands. Yeah, create new music by all means – I’m not a purist – but I want to be able to hear your own roots in it!
3) Do you search for new artists to sign to SWP Records? Any artists that you are excited about?
I don’t search for ‘artists’, I don’t ‘sign’ anyone. If you look at the SWP catalogue you will see, aside from my own music, archival field recordings, my own field recordings, other music that is unique and forgotten such as English drum legend Phil Seamen and two albums of retro Zambian pop music. Again, I release all of this music because I want you to hear it— not because I want to make a load of money! The term ‘artist’ suggests ‘show business’ to me, SWP Records is engaged in making music available, beautiful music that otherwise wouldn’t be available— you know, as my website says: “We release music other labels won’t touch, what’s the matter with them, what’s the matter with us?!” Yes I like to break even, some albums have made money, others have cost money— but I believe firmly in every album I’ve released. I was in Zambia during the month of September and made some great field recordings, such beautiful music. For example on my last visit in 2011 I didn’t manage to find the thumb-piano master of the Leya people who I had recorded in 1996, but I found him this time and now 75 years old, this Edwin Syasiya is the last to be playing this beautiful old tradition— when he dies, the music will die with him. I want you to hear it because it’s so beautiful. He is a master musician, but a subsistence farmer by profession— he is not an ‘artist’! On the other hand, another plan is to release an album of Brian Chilala and the Ngoma Sazu Band – they make energetic Zambian dance music, with drum set and electric guitars, in the kalindula tradition of the 80s.
4) Why is it important to preserve the music, art and culture of Africa?
Well, it’s important to keep all traditional music, all over the world. Because we need cultural diversity. Because the alternative is a mono-culture, and that’s where we are heading. Even street food culture in India is under threat by McDonald’s and KFC. I was born in Zambia, so I have a special affinity with African music. Even just as a musician, I have to say that so much traditional African music is just such good music— it took centuries of musical genius to develop it! The playing of time patterns, the invention of sounds using locally available materials, the 1 + 1 = 3 principle so highly developed in Africa where one clever rhythm is added to another. Yeah, that’s what good polyrhythm is all about— the total is more than the sum. Mostly having no written culture, so much ancient knowledge is to be found in the music. If we lose the music, that ancestral knowledge will be lost— and in the West we only just waking up to that knowledge in music, the musical establishment has yet to study African music properly. And yet it is disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate. My series of 22 cds of Hugh Tracey recordings from the 40s and 50s represents the musical memory of half a continent, on my two kankobela cds you can hear the last 18 players of that fantastic music, on ‘African Gems’ we hear field recordings from the 60s and 70s up to ’84 of great music that has also largely already gone, on the cd ‘Lesotho Calling’ the good news from 2006 is that lesiba is alive and well! Just some of the SWP catalogue.
I think what happened in colonial Africa is that first the missionaries arrived and often forbade the devil’s music, then the colonial arrogance that African music was merely primitive, then in the post-colonial period the new governments saw everything Western as superior anyway. Wake up fellow Africans, snap out your post-colonial numbness— it is up to you to look after your cultural and spiritual roots!
5) Do you find that many American listeners will give African music a chance and listen to it?
Yes, the sales in North America are generally good. But strange music needs getting used to— you have to adjust your ears, that’s normal. For example most of the music on the two volumes of ‘The Kankobela of the Batonga’, with the thumb-piano from the Zambezi Valley, is so far out that many listeners won’t get it immediately. Even just rhythmically, some of the songs are so sophisticated and abstract, it will take you some time to get into— don’t be lazy, you have to educate yourself you know!— but the rewards will be tremendous. Let the music talk to you, let go of any preconceptions. Same with the lesiba on ‘Lesotho Calling’ – this blown mouthbow is unique and perhaps eerie at first, but let its ‘bluesiness’ and wisdom take you on a trip. And the sekhankula on the same album, made from an old parafine can and played with a horsehair bow, has a bluegrass aspect to it. Every track on ‘African Gems’, both on cd and LP, is exactly that – a gem containing musical genius, but most of them will take some getting used to. New music can require effort from the listener— not everything should be immediately consumable, confront yourself with new things, widen your horizon. Yes, there is an educational aspect to many of my albums, which is also why there are informative 20 or 24-page booklets with interesting photos included, but hey, I’m always grateful when someone turns me on to something I didn’t yet know! I am sure the number of Americans willing to dig into African traditional music is growing. Yeah, dig and discover – SWP Records helps you to do just that.
6). Is there a world view that you ascribe to Michael – is it important to experience other cultures, through music and the arts?
I’m not sure I know what you mean by ‘world view’— I don’t like uniforms, so I don’t like religions! But we are all connected— everything is interconnected – and that seems to me to be a good reason to be interested in other cultures. I am just a musician who also has an independent record label, but I firmly believe that music is the most superior form of communication. As we used to say way back, music is the healing force of the universe! It’s international, it’s a universal language, it’s dangerous for politicians, and it’s in music that the Jungian concept of a collective subconscious is most apparent. It’s a positive energy that brings us closer together. There is love, so there is hate—but let’s try and opt for love.
7). Could you tell us about the musician Edwin Syasiya? How did you meet him?
In November 1996, during my first recording trip in Zambia, I got invited to record a ceremony of the Tokaleya people, who live next to the Victoria Falls – Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders. This was the ceremony concluding the girls’ initiation period into womanhood. It took place in Mukuni village, led by Chief Mukuni and the Chiefteness, with a grand choir of women from 4-year-olds to old grannies, and the palace musicians. The whole thing was about identity and upholding of the traditions of the Tokaleya, the singing was powerful and the musicians excellent. Tracks 7 and 8 on SWP 019 ‘Zambia Roadside’ are the women’s choir from that ceremony, as is track 2 on SWP 041 ‘Zambia Roadside 2’ which is a duet of thumb-piano and xylophone— to my knowledge a totally unique combination in Africa. The players were Edwin Syasiya and on xylophone Crispin Mutanuka, who also plays solo on track 9 of Roadside 2. I found Crispin again in 2010 and asked about his friend the thumb-piano player, but he was way out in the bush somewhere. Same again when I returned in 2011, but in 2014 I found him and recorded five songs. He was now 75 years old and his sad news was that no one is continuing this instrument. The young Leya guy I had hired as an interpreter made the classic remark in between two songs “These songs are like our bible!” Yeah but so why are all you young people letting it disappear?! Edwin is a master musician – and a gentleman. It’s so sad to witness such great music and not be able to stop its disappearance. Well, other than record it, that is— and hopefully release it on a future album.
To know more abut SWP Records, you can access their catalogue here
John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who has written for REORIENT magazine, L.A. Review of Books, Toronto Review of Books and other publications. This is his first article for Bakwa magazine. He currently resides in West Babylon NY.