A journey into the wonderful world of JuJu Sounds Records

There’s a very interesting label that combines music and knowledge from fascinating and rich cultures. We talk with Luka, the mind behind JuJu Sounds Records. Enjoy the reading!

First of all, tell me something about the idea of the label. I imagine it came from a personal passion for African culture.

It comes from a passion for music and for its role in human experience. I am not so much interested in music as entertainment based on an expression of the artist’s personality. What I am looking for is music as an experience. I am searching for music cultures that inspire a sense of dignity and belonging. I am fascinated with music practices related to transcendental experiences where the transfer of knowledge takes place through the body, not through mental images. That’s why I travel to different continents and Africa is just one of the places I can learn about it. I know African music is being hyped now which – don’t get me wrong – I think is great but my goal was never to sell fancy exotic products. There are many marginalized music cultures that retained what we have lost in the West so I research and record them. For the same reason, half of the project is writing – these cultures need to be presented within a broader context if we are to learn something from them and not just get entertained as we are well used to.

JuJu Sounds

I’m fascinated by your idea that «Instead of saving a closed form, you can co-create an open field of possibilities.» Tell me something about it!

I am well aware of the colonial and postcolonial implications in the music industry. The history of recordings of the so-called traditional or indigenous non-European music cultures have come a very long way since its darker times. For example from Hugh Tracey through a more open-minded OCORA approach, to recent fascinating experiments by artists like Kink Gong. The post-modern dilemma of subjective/objective wiped out much of the western chauvinism. The problem we face now is more related to the sins of consumer society– creating some detached objects nicely packed and easy to digest. While this kind of culture is also a proud western export… but let’s not divert too far from your question. Saving a closed-form is how I describe the academic mission to rescue musical heritage in a closed-form. The community from which the music originates usually gets forgotten during that process. The same goes for the music industry selling Spotify-ready products. The tools we use reflect our values and many believe there is a lot to change. The music business has done almost as much bad to these music cultures as institutional religion or the constructs of a nation did in the past. I am inspired by the approach to this cultural music as to an entire ecosystem. You can’t detach one part and pick the other. Music has always evolved dynamically and crossed borders as part of complex, organic social systems. Quite often – as for example in the Zar culture of northeast Africa – songs can be the only record of history for many marginalized communities. So rather than launching a rescue mission what I am trying to do is to engage with these ecosystems and support them with my energy, perspective and experience. JuJu Sounds is based on strong ethics and clear intentions which help to create bonds with musicians anywhere. To keep it that way I didn’t want to engage any external funding institutions. This is an independent gig funded entirely from my day job income and now more and more by people who love the project.

You detailed the experience behind Mono Egypt in your website. The publication is the fruit of dozens of recording sessions organized over the past few years in private apartments and gardens, by rivers, in the back of bars, on rooftops, in no-man’s lands, and in other unusual places across the country. First of all, I’d like to ask you some memories of that trip.

I am in my friends house somewhere in the Nile Delta with all my gear set up and we are trying to record the mesmerizing voice of Rashida Sayed Ibrahim accompanied by a rababa played by Sayed Salah. The small bedroom at the back of the house offered the best acoustic conditions. The musicians sat on the floor next to the wardrobe, and a gang of curious kids settled down on beds. Each time I hit the record button the moment of silence becomes unbearable for this bunch and they break into laughter. The cheerful mess of this picture calmed down with the first sound of the rababa, which sounded like a beautiful complaint about a difficult lot, or as the sweetest love failure. We have recorded a sonic jewel of the invisible Dom culture. Between the sixth and eleventh centuries, their ancestors – just like the Roma people – left the region of present-day Rajasthan and Punjab and settled in areas from Central Asia, and the Middle East to North Africa. The Roma and the Dom peoples, regardless of their location, have always been stigmatized and excluded from society in various ways. In Egypt there is no data on the size of their population because religion is the only distinguishing marker on Egyptian IDs. The music of the Dom is a living testimony of their history and hundreds of years of existence on the fringe of Egyptian society.

A picture from another trip to Cairo comes to my mind. I am in the middle of the action of Mulid al Sayyid Ahmad al-Rifa’i. A dozen or so quarters are completely annexed by the Sufi subversive carnival organized at the tomb of a deceased saint. A myriad of colorful rag tents with ad hoc stages built in them host munshid sufi singers with their groups testing limits of the worn out sound systems. Vocals, screams, invocations, drums, flutes, electrified violins, ouds, keyboards – all blend into a constant drone. Local youth, dancing under a rain of colorful lights, high on anything they found that day, fall into a trance, shoulder to shoulder with members of the tariq, a Sufi brotherhood. According to the Sufi doctrine – the dhikr (zikr) is open to everyone. And then there is that older guy standing in front of me, eating his glass bite by bite performing one of the fakir style shows that I remembered so well from the sufi pilgrimage in India. He definitely got encouraged by the camera presence expecting me to keep filming it. There is not much of this left during mulids. Egyptian festivals, although rough and unpredictable, were until recently also characterized by greater madness and ecstatic character, but it has been gradually changing. I described this process in detail in one of the stories on my website. Still, certain rituals during sufi festivals in Egypt remained and another one of them is ziyara – a ritual visit to a tomb of a sufi saint during his mulid. Al Rifa’i mosque, similar to many other Egyptian temples, this time looked completely different. There was no sign of a pensive mood of peace whispers and people stepped quietly on the carpet so typical for mosques. Bars separating the women’s and men’s sections disappear just after the last evening prayers on the first day of the mulid, when a crowd of men, women and children annexed the temple, transforming it into a permanent birthday party. The space was tightly filled with celebrating people. Someone was handing out loaves of bread, people greeted each other, loud cries and laments were heard, and a hypnotic dhikr of a dozen people led by the singer took place somewhere in the middle of it all. The procession of men and women pressed against the passage leading to the tomb; everyone wanted to pay homage to the saint and encircle the grave situated under the dome. The atmosphere was really heated. Everyone could be absorbed by the crowd as if pulled by a wave, and there was no way to step back. Inside the small tomb people constantly pass counter-clockwise. Those who advanced from the outside would produce overpressure, forcing rotation around the grave; those who had already completed the full cycle were pushed out through the tight passage. Inside, the main task of each participant was to squeeze through the tightly packed procession and touch the decorated wooden maqsura protecting the grave for a while, at the same time loudly greeting the saint. Each of them did it in their own unique way. The cramped hall resonated with shouts, laments, recitations and cries. Some people thrust themselves at the maqsura in exaltation, and those who clung to its bars and blocked access to the grave for too long were beaten with a bamboo stick. To get out one had to break through the stream pressing through the same narrow passage. This ritual, in which men and women participate together, resembles encircling The Kaaba in Mecca – this similarity irritates orthodox Muslims and is used by them as key evidence of the polytheism of Sufi brotherhoods.

And then, loosing myself in the presentations on your website, it seems they are essays: JuJu Sounds is more than a music label, it has a kind of academic value. Did you want it since the beginning or this attitude came out after your first experiences in loco?

Yes, the stories are almost as important as the music. The idea is not to sell exotic sounds but to actually inspire and share knowledge. This music has to be presented in its cultural context which quite often is very complex. The more I dig into it the more fascinating it gets. It is part of my job to serve as kind of a bridge between people from different cultures – I spent many years working in Africa and Asia as an adventure tour guide and than as a boat captain. JuJu Sounds wouldn’t happen without this experience… and of course without the passion for music. Regarding my writing I am spoiled by my academic background but I am trying hard to forget it now. The way of thinking and the language remained but more and more I am working without this shield separating me from the readers. I am searching for good balance between passing the knowledge and telling my personal stories.

Zar: Songs for the spirits is the second production your «micro label». The project focuses on building bridges between musicians from marginalized communities and niche audiences from around the world. The mission of JuJu Sounds is to revive valuable musical ecosystems, not just to sell exotic products. In fact, the artwork of the vinyl edition works as a sort of pamphlet for the music inside. Tell me something about this collection.

Yes, the artwork had been planned to play a bit with the form related to the so called “traditional music” archiving epoque. It’s a double LP gatefold release with printed insert rich in information about often misunderstood zar possession cult. It’s an invitation to slow down, focus and experience zar by immersing in sounds and in the story. Side C and D of the vinyl release contain live recordings of zar rituals captured in the Nile Delta region between 2017 and 2019. They are rawer than studio sessions but offer absolutely unique insight into what zar is now. Far from the world music scene, far from the concert and festival circuit, zar is a community thing. It forms self-sufficient systems, remaining practically invisible in mainstream culture. It is a self-organizing, syncretic and completely non-dogmatic cult. It is difficult to control that kind of culture, therefore in the mainstream zar is tolerated solely as a folkloric performance. The real zar is practiced underground. A well-hidden culture challenging both – modern society and institutional religion – relegated to the margins of social life as a result. A culture that can still be experienced anywhere from North Africa, through the Middle East to the western parts of Asia. The zar culture is crossing not only geographical boundaries but also those determined by the rational mind. The boundaries here are not clearly defined; the worlds intertwine. You can not enclose zar into a single frame. If we choose to look at it as a healing practice, a very unique role of music emerges. The first stage of dealing with illness is always diagnosis, which in the zar culture is made by playing songs of different spirits.

“Zār: Songs for the spirits” is a compilation of recordings presenting all three varieties of zar practiced today in Egypt. Zar Sa’idi is the most iconic variety of zar, and still very much a female domain. This is increasingly rare in Cairo and the Nile Delta nowadays. Madiha Abu Laila is a true zar legend and it was a privilege to record her powerful, hypnotising voice.

Zar Tamboura, also known as African Zar, came to Egypt during the period of Anglo-Egyptian rule along with slaves from Sudan. This variation is based mainly on rhythm. It sounds quite different from the emotional Arab tarab style, and closer to Sudanese music. The recordings feature instruments that are far from common in Egypt. The keria is a piece of railway track that produces a high-frequency sound when hit with a metal rod. The mangour is a belt lined with rattling goat hooves hung from the dancer’s hips. The sound is filled out with the rapid shaking of rattles made from spray cans. The rhythm section comprises not only percussion instruments – such as Sudanese nogara drums – but also plucking on the six-string lyre called the tamboura. Hassan Bergamon was a living legend and one of the last musicians in Egypt to play the tamboura. Just as Madiha Abu Laila, Hassan was a prominent figure in zar culture. Raised among the Sudanese diaspora living in Ismailia, north-eastern Egypt, he heard his first zar songs from his mother as a child. He grew up to become one of the key figures of African Zar in and around Cairo. Hassan Bergamon was also the last person in Egypt to play the rango – a xylophone that his Sudanese ancestors brought with them when they migrated north to Egypt. He has helped to save the instrument from fading into oblivion by performing until recently with a group called Rango and owning the last few specimens of the xylophone. Sadly Hassan passed away last year and our session was probably the last one he ever recorded.

The last of the three forms of zar practised in Egypt today is Gheitaniya Zar. Having only evolved in the second half of the 20th century, it is now the only alive and expanding zar tradition in the country. Gheitaniya musicians form male-only groups that are historically related to the independent, marginalized Sufi brotherhood. Hassan Abul Gheit is still a prominent saint in their contemporary zar pantheon. Musicians are contracted by zar sheikhas and sheikhs to help cure both women and men. They also play regularly at the weekly hadra. For the safety of the participants, the gatherings are strictly private and usually take place in a small room packed with people. The live recordings of ritual although rougher and less pure in sound than the rehearsal room recordings – provide a glimpse of the real zar culture and an understanding of the function of music in the cult. It is one of those unique cultures in the modern-day world where the transfer of knowledge occurs not through mental images but through bodily experience.

JuJu Sounds

These first two albums focus on Egypt, are there any plans in order to expand the area of interest? What are the next projects for the label?

There are quite a few projects waiting to be finalized. Due to my day job I have spent a few years on the island of Reunion. I have many contacts and recordings from entire Indian Ocean region. I am totally fascinated with the music of the African diaspora in this area. As always not so much about artistic expression but in the cultural, social and therapeutic contexts of music cultures. Maloya and sega were among the only means of survival for the enslaved people during the colonial struggle. Music helped and still helps people to regain dignity. At the moment I work with the electro maloya scene from Saint Denis the capital of Reunion. We had many discussions how to carry that community experience in maloya into the electronic music scene. This is one of the key questions for all the artists from this scene we work with. It is fascinating to observe how maloya is developing now. There are more and more links between instrumental and electronic scenes on Reunion. People who were into hip-hop or electro in St Denis are more and more interested in what is going on in the South or East of the island. They were born in the capital city where African and malgache influences were considered as something to be ashamed of. I even heard from a French girl who moved from mainland France tempted by sunny hipster lifestyle that servis kabare – in fact the spiritual core of Reunionese culture – is something “very low” and not worth searching for. I was kind of shocked. As the electronic music scene from Saint Denis starts to co-create with the African and malgache artists from all over island we will witness incredible things happening with the music on Reunion. Our coming release is one of the first bridges connecting these two dimensions and I have a feeling it will play a significant role in current maloya culture. The form of the album reflects the main idea – we have three instrumental maloya songs on side A of the vinyl and five remixes on the B side. There are many strong and incredible personalities from Reunion cooperating on this project including the visual artists. LP preorder will be available soon.

At the moment of answering your question, I am in the amazon rainforest. I didn’t really plan to come here this year but life had a different scenario and due to important family reasons, I am living here for a while. I took this opportunity to embark on another project. The time has come for a very personal one that I was looking forward to for a long time. I met Maestra Ynes in 2015 near Iquitos and since then my family life got somehow intertwined with her and her family. Ynes is one of the most well-known tradition bearers of Shipibo-Conibo indiginous group in the Amazon rainforest. In her culture every plant, herb, animal or elemental spirit has its own icaro. Gentle and powerful at the same time, Shipibo healers sing icaros to cure ilnesses and help people with traumas or various emotional problems. Maestra Ynes is a mother of seven children, three of whom are now Onaya healers – a status highly respected among Amazon tribes working with ayahuasca and master plants. Ynes work as ayahuasquera (specializing with ayahuasca), palera (specializing with medicinal trees) and tabaquera (specializing with tobacco) helped heal grave diseases and change the lives of many. With about 55 years of experience with plant spirit healing Maestra Ynes has trained her children and often works closely with her two daughters Laura and Lila. I feel absolutely privileged to embark on a common journey with these unique female healers once more – this time being able not only to receive but to give as well. We are preparing a serious work necessary in these times of fear and confusion. We will dedicate two separate ceremonies with ayahuasca to focus just on the message to be sent via the album. We will enter the plant medicine dimension with the maestras to record the icaros as only in this way it can be done right. There are more projects in the making and we will announce them when the time comes.