World Music Central’s Angel Romero recently visited Madrid, where he interviewed Manuel Domínguez, one of the key figures in the development of world music in Spain. Manuel Domínguez runs, together with Zazie Wurr, the renowned Nubenegra world music label.
Nubenegra has been a key label in the production of world music and folk in Spain. Which is it the current focus of the label?
It has not changed. Simply, we try to run less risks knowing that sales are going to be lower and that the majority of sales will be at concerts. This means that it is becoming more difficult to record singers who need to hire musicians, arrangers, etc. Therefore, our priority are groups that help with promotion by willing to tour for a promotional fee. Neither do I record anyone that doesn’t have a good live show. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to make recordings like we used to, such as A María Teresa Vera, or Rapindey, collective tribute albums, which have very little commercial viability at the present time.
In any way, I’m always alert, with my eyes attentive- or rather, with my ears, in case something unexpected arises, with personality, that invites me to dream again and to jump on the opportunity without worrying about the bottom line.
Which are the biggest selling artists on the label?
Your label was one of the first in promoting the music of Cuba in Europe. What is the current situation of music in Cuba?
To be honest, I don’t know. It’s been a while since I visited the island. Mariem Hassan has been invited to participate in Cubadisco, in May, and there is going to be a concert with Septeto Santiaguero at the Teatro Astral in which for the first time a Cuban septet will accompany a haul singer from the desert in three or four songs.
I imagine that everything will continue as always: music everywhere. There, when you kick a stone, it sounds melodious or rhythmic. What is true is that many Cuban musicians have settled down everywhere and there is not a major city that prides itself that doesn’t have a good son, salsa or bolero group, filling a good part of the aspirations of the local fans. For that reason, it is more complicated to organize tours throughout Europe with Cuban groups, because in most places they have their Cuban music needs already covered.
You have a special relationship with Saharawi music. How and when did this interest arise?
The first interest was political. In the 1970s I participated in the illegal demonstrations that supported Saharawi independence that took place in Madrid. The interest in their music grew with my first visit to the Tinduf [Algeria] refugee camps, with the purpose of attending a traditional music festival.
What is the musical situation in the Saharawi refugee camps?
The situation is of tedium. Everybody is tired of living in exile. There is much restlessness. Many guitarists have come to live in Spain and here they end up taking jobs that rarely have to do with music (construction, agriculture and some factory work).
Are there new musicians that have attracted your attention?
The new things that I have heard I find very inferior to the standards that we set at Nubenegra.
Do you continue to follow the music of Equatorial Guinea?
It seems hard to believe, but when things are wrong in a country and oil is discovered, instead of improving the conditions of the population, it worsens them. Equatorial Guinea is a small country. Many musicians that headed this way were under the impression that once they arrived to Madrid they would record immediately with Nubenegra. Hijas del Sol set the bar very high.
Mounting the Malabo Strit Band was a mess, but it was a great project and it was worth doing it. I am very satisfied with the recording, but I found the musicians irresponsible. The band disbanded right after the CD was finished and that took away my desire of getting involved in any other project related with Equatorial Guinea.
Nubenegra was not your first project. Tell us a little about your previous experiences.
I never thought that I would end up producing records. I liked making radio programs, investigating popular music and writing about the songwriters. I participated in the creation of Ozone, a magazine dedicated to music in its first stage (1975) and which later became more open to culture in general. But one good day, the English song “Floral Dance” crossed my path and I ended up creating the Guimbarda label and coordinating the release of more than 300 albums of folk music from the entire world. It was the year 1978 and the exchange rates made importing LPs unprofitable, so the market was nurtured with licensed albums.
Not in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined that I, an inexperienced journalist in the record industry, after a couple of years would be releasing albums by labels such as Rounder Records, which by then had a magnificent catalog; Alligator, Kicking Mule, classics like Hexagone, Transatlantic, Topic, and other more modest labels (Revolum, Ventadorm, Keltia III, Cezame, Ballon Noir, Orfeu, Cetra, L’Escargot, Arfolk, Plant Life, Rubber, Request, Free Reed.) that may not sound familiar to you.
And to be able to wok with guys like John Renbourn, Happy Traum, Bert Jansch, Alan Stivell, Boys of the Lough, Robin Williamson and Barbara Dane. Records from 21 different countries, in those years! When the borders were so tight and Spain was so isolated.
In the United States the music business is changing drastically with the closing of record stores, print magazines and record companies. What’s the situation in Spain?
I’m afraid it is the same. Of course, we who run independent labels are a bunch of people who are mad about music and we have become entrepreneurs because we had no other choice. If we acted like real businessmen, we would have shut down operations because of economic performance. We keep running the labels at the expense of our physical and mental health. We work day and night, carrying out all the tasks of the employees that we have had to lay off because we could not continue to pay them a salary. And naturally, nobody takes us seriously. Productions are suffering from this effect and have lost a good part of the initiative that we relied on only four or five years ago. Some regions (Catalonia, Basque Country, Canary Islands, Galicia) help their music industry and that is clearly visible. In Madrid, on the contrary, none of the institutions pay attention to us.
How do you see the future of music in Spain?
It is clear that there is no going back. It seems like the CD, as an artistic object and, therefore, a consumer product, has its days numbered. Not so with the music, which will need to find a different niche not just for itself, but also for all the people that work in and around it. Some will disappear in the process. We will see what remains of the independent sector.
Nowadays everybody uses music for the most diverse things. It seem like it has become a complementary element rather than a good in itself. It happens in all aspects of our daily life. You have to bear with people singing happy birthday to you; or have to listen to the drunkards at night singing “Asturias, patria querida” (Asturias, dear homeland); during district festivities you can’t sleep because of the high volume of bars; what the mass media offers as music is sheer nonsense; and that sometimes at a concert an element of the show is more important than the music itself. That it is more and more difficult to find a moment to listen to your music because you are bored with what they play at elevators, shopping centers, mass transit, and on and on.
I believe that us record producers will continue to pursue our work because we are conscious of the changes that are coming, and we don’t want to miss out. We don’t want anyone to take away our share of the leading role, even if we are rolled over in the process.
Who produces the Nubenegra CDs?
At this time I produce them. I can’t allow myself the luxury of recording the old way, as I said earlier, with producers, arrangers, studio musicians, photographers, CD booklet designers, translators and so forth. In some cases I am also the artistic producer. That means that whoever is going to record an album has to have a very clear idea of what they are going to do. Experiments will no longer be allowed. We can’t create studio bands nor record an artist that will later need to put together a band for live concerts. All that has to be resolved before going into the studio.
In general, the artistic production remains in the hands of the band or the artist that records the album. I contribute my opinion for minor details because the most important aspects have to be very clear before we begin recording.
Which are the next projects of the label?
Right now I am developing Alboury Dabo’s Sanu Africa dance company. They are 16 artists on stage, between musicians, singers and dancers, belonging to 5 different ethnic groups from Senegal, who perform Alboury’s original work which at times is an orgy of percussion and dance. You come out of a performance exhilarated after so much energy is deployed.
Also, Korrontzi as well as Mariem Hassan should be releasing new CDs, although recording dates are still in the air. Korrontzi’s will probably be in September.
I have other ideas that don’t depend as much of specific artists, but of certain situations. I would like to carry out certain field work; although that is more in the realm of dreams rather than an immediate project. You never know.
The most immediate thing is the release on DVD of the Mariem Hassan documentary, La voz del Sahara (The voice of the Sahara), that I have just directed and that will be accompanied by a series of additional videos of Mariem as well as other Saharawi artists. They are in Hassania and Spanish and subtitled in English. There is a lot music included, previously unreleased. We think that through Mariem’s life experience we could give an idea of the suffering of the Saharawi people in these three decades of exile and how, in such a committed situation, they are safeguarding a culture prohibited in the territories occupied by Morocco.
What barriers do you find when exporting Spanish music?
Exporting is a concept that is beginning to change. More than exporting you could talk about distribution. We already have a lot of countries that allow free trade of goods. And if product support disappears, what’s left? Only the Internet and the communication networks.
The truth is that I find few barriers. And the music that I put into circulation is very diverse. Another thing is my capacity to get people to know and become interested in it. That is a very important issue that needs improvement.
If anyone visited Madrid, what stores and music clubs would you recommend?
As far as record stores, nothing except FNAC. A few years ago, for sure, I would have made a succulent list. Now it is not possible.
As for music venues, there are the now classic clubs such as Café Central, Clamores and Galileo Galilei. On Saturdays, Colonial Norte has regular world music programming. A good web site to find out what’s happening in in Madrid is www.guiadelocio.com/madrid. It covers most of what’s happening in town.
Where were you born?
I was born in Granada, at the feet of the Alhambra. Some years ago, I went back to visit the house in which I was born but there was only a vacant lot. I suppose that they have already built something new there. The truth is that I have never prided myself of being a granadino, nor an Andalusian, nor anything else. Culture is much more than being being from a particular region or country.
What type of music do you listen to at home recently?
Not as much as I’d like to. Keeping Nubenegra afloat takes me many hours day and night, and in order to listen to music, I demand some quiet time from myself, which I sometimes don’t have. But when I am able to, I enjoy it immensely. Coltrane, Allman Brothers, The Band, Van Morrison, Billie Holiday, Tom Waits, J.J.Cale, but also Los Tigres del Norte, Walter Ferguson, and Flamenco, and French chanson, and African music, and from Latin America.
Now, almost without noticing it, I am practicing an amusing game that consists in listening again to CDs by artists and groups that I liked a lot a long time ago. Some I still like or even like more than before. Others bore me now, or they bring me memories that have little to do with the music. It is not an exercise of nostalgia, but exactly the opposite. It helps me verify how I have changed. Also I feel like finding great new recordings, but it is complicated not to analyze them under a professional point of view when you place them in the CD player, at least when you listen to them for the first time.