LABEL FEATURE: Ostinato Records – founder Vik Sohonie discusses latest Groupe RTD project and the challenges and rewards of running a label on a global mission

Gathering ‘lost’ music from around the world and reissuing the work of under-exposed artists, is a difficult task. Getting beyond the global communications, licensing and digital legwork or travel can be challenging enough, but what about the role of cultural excavation and regeneration post-war? Among a range of projects across numerous nations, Ostinato Records has reissued tapes, ‘rescued’ during the civil war from Somalia and recovered from bury sites over the border for the Grammy nominated Sweet As Broken Dates… (featured in WTM ).

Groupe RTD – The Dancing Devils of Djibouti, new from Ostinato Records

With their latest release – a compilation of Groupe RTD’s music of Djibouti  – the label managed to negotiate the release of state controlled musicians, now newly recorded and their music heard for the first time outside of their native country.

Ostinato founder Vik Sohonie is helping to preserve music of nations where perceptions have become misunderstood – sometimes through historic reshaping and subsequent media coverage – and where the experience of trauma and displacement have come from conflict and disaster. Work to preserve music in Haiti, Cape Verde Islands, Somalia (for the Grammy nominated Broken Dates… comp’) and Sudan – including work with the Red Sea Foundation music archive, containing close to 10,000 recordings of Somali music – has highlighted Ostinato as a label working at the vanguard of development, ethnography and historical restoration.

“Initially, it’s about understanding the history of certain countries that sit at crossroads, like Cape Verde, or have misunderstood histories which don’t tell the full story, like Haiti or Somalia,” Vik says.

“From there, serendipity tends to introduce you to new projects. So for example, while producing Sweet As Broken Dates, we stumbled onto the wondrous world of Djiboutian music.”

To deliver on the latest Ostinato compilation, Vik worked with the state authorities. “The negotiations involved a bureaucratic government process,” he explains. Enabling musicians to be able to create again and to share their music beyond the borders of Djibouti, gave this project a unique dynamic.
Djiboutian vocalist, Asma Omar (© Janto Djassi)
” I look at a world map frequently and ask a lot of questions.” (Vik Sohonie)
“That means going through layers and layers of officials who would rubber stamp one approval then pass you onto someone else for another. Often, in the chain of command, some people would not get the memo so we would have to start from square one again. It was sometimes one step forward, five steps back.” (Vik Sohonie)
“We approached the authorities through the Djiboutian Ambassador in Germany who helped greatly with this project. As Groupe RTD’s album is still in the early stages, we haven’t been able to give the artists a real sense of how it’s being received, but with more press and radio play we’ll send them a little care package. I think it will really hit them when this virus has cleared and they are able to tour, and there’s already been plenty of interest.”

It was the label’s work in Somalia that earned their Grammy nomination – ‘Best Historical Album’ in 2018.

“We submit all our albums for Grammy consideration for various categories – best packaging, liner notes, best historical album, and so on. Fortunately, one of them got the nod. I don’t apply for any grants from any organisation. I am fundamentally opposed to receiving institutional support as I do not want to be beholden to any authority determining the legitimacy of our ideas or our creative direction. Ostinato Records is a self sufficient private business, albeit a small one!”

Somalia has undergone one of the most turbulent histories of nations in Africa in recent times. The perception of the country in the media has hindered development and investment, as well as cultural regeneration. In Djibouti also, conflict through the 1990s made it typical of contemporary events in the region.
Abdo Houssein Handeh (Bass) – all photos © Janto Djassi
“The most challenging [aspect] is the constant uncertainty around whether projects will materialise, we work in difficult circumstances, with a small team.” (Vik Sohonie)
In Somailia in particular, war, famine and internal conflict meant that much of the nation’s cultural artifcacts were threatened with destruction. Like other nations where hugely significant changes have been forced on society and cultures, their celebration and renaissance has been achieved through various projects that have revived music and art for new generations.
Where there are more complexities around a nation’s history and structure – in order to obtain access to artists and bodies of work – the work of a label like Ostinato becomes more fraught with challenges, compared to peers in the industry.
“We don’t have the budget to spend endless amount of time in a country so it’s about ensuring a successful work trip each time,” says Vik “…and while we’ve succeeded so far, there are times when we’ve come awfully close to walking away empty handed. The other challenge has got to be the current Twitter age where some of the criticism – if you can call it that – we receive is so outlandish and seems to come from folks who are committed to misunderstanding us, no matter what.” As Ostinato have experienced, the discourse around supporting different countries – and the way nations can be empowered and autonomous over their own development – continues to be as intensely discussed as ever, constructively and sometimes less so.
Mohamed Abdi Alto, a renouned Djiboutian sax’ player (© Janto Djassi)
“This can get quite draining as responding to silly rumors that spread on social media and dealing with a Twitter mob is not something I expected from the job.” (Vik Sohonie)
Thankfully, the label’s work has also been hugely rewarding: “The impact our work has had, it is what I envisioned and it has been realised in many cases,” Vik says. “We have been able to completely shatter narratives and even add nuance to the global coverage of countries in some instances.” In the case of Somalia and Haiti, negative news coverage has proliferated about the deptivation nations have experienced – and the subsequent actions of people – that news organisation choose to focus on. The ‘othering’ of peoples, ‘moral panics’ and the formations of ‘folk devils’ has occurred in the media for decades.
“I am glad the world is open and ready to receive a new image of countries and peoples that have been long sidelined and demonised.” (Vik Sohonie)
“The other rewarding aspect is simply the experiences we have when we travel. Growing up in many countries allows you to immerse yourself very deeply in a place when you travel, and that immersion I’ve been fortunate to have in Haiti, Sudan, Somalia, learning and experience a place and culture not many outsiders do, has been a blessing.” But for Vik, meaningful change or intervention by nation’s own governments seems to pave the way for most constructive development.
“In some cases, artists like Abu Obaida Hassan, partially because of our album, began to receive government support after years of neglect.” (Vik Sohonie)
Vik’s upbringing and background have enabled him to be so adaptive and understanding of new situations and locations: “I grew up in many countries around the world and when you move frequently as a young person, you often need a safety blanket that allows to wade through your new unfamiliar surroundings.”
“Music played this role for me and I grew up listening to many genres of music, but particularly hip hop and other African-American music.” (Vik Sohonie)
And so, to the inevitable consideration of the global pandemic and working in a ‘new normal’ environment. “With the current situation, and since producing new projects requires extensive, long-stay travel, we are currently limited to what we were able to digitise from the archives in Djibouti,” Vik says. “Which will most like make up the next few releases.” Fans of the label will always be waiting for that next precious project from the team at Ostinato.

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