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Mandelson & Mustafa

by Joe Gore

Worldwide, Your Guides:  Two Split Personalities in One Body

Let's get it straight:  Ben Mandelson and Hijaz Mustafa are not one and the same.  "The similarities are remarkable," admits Mandelson, "yet we're two different people."  Mandelson, a guitarist turned record producer, heads London's GlobeStyle Records, perhaps the best -- definitely the hippest -- world-music label.

Ben wears many hats, but no fez -- that's the trademark headgear of Hijaz, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and leader of 3 Mustafas 3, a mondo-bizarro world-music ensemble that plays -- I mean, really plays -- damn-near everything from odd-meter Balkan bagpipe rave-ups to West African highlife to Western swing.

Besides, where would Mandelson find time to moonlight on guitar, lapsteel, violin, bouzouki, and other instruments?  He already works a job-and-a-half, judging by the quality of most GlobeStyle releases -- they're beautifully packaged, well-recorded, and scrupulously annotated.  While many globally oriented labels just license whatever comes their way, Mandelson and cohorts instigate many projects themselves, seeking out music and setting up recording sessions from Venezuela to Madagascar.

Given Mandelson's wide-ranging guitar experience, it's no accident that so many GlobeStyle records feature outrageous stringed instrument performances.  Ben, 35, is a walking encyclopedia of regional guitar styles, and his talk sparkles with a fan's enthusiasm:  "The guitar is all over the place, and there are many other local string-instrument styles that translate onto the guitar.  In West Kenya, for example, the Luo people have a one-string fiddle called orutu and a harp called nyatiti.  In benga, one of the big pop musics of Kenya, the lead guitar lines are exactly like orutu lines, and the nyatiti patterns are copied by the rhythm guitarists."

Ben's fascination with African music began when, at 15, he heard a recording by African acoustic guitarist Mwenda Jean Bosco [profiled in the March '89 GP].  "I liked it very much," he remembers.  "Back then I was a folkie, into acoustic guitar jingle-jangle, and later I was sucked into free jazz.  But my first recording credit was with Amazorblades, a punk/power pop group.  I played guitar, Hawaiian guitar, fiddle, mandolin, changing instruments every number -- it was extremely stupid.  We put out a single on one of the early independent punk labels, which later matured into Ace Records, which gave birth in turn to GlobeStyle."  Ben also played with Magazine, a popular turn-of-the-decade art-punk band.

Meanwhile, he continued to soak up African guitar music, and in 1980 he had a chance to study at the source.  "I travelled to East Africa with a Kenyan guy who had worked as a session player around Nairobi," he recalls.  "I'd been trying to play that music for quite some time, but I didn't really learn how until I saw the bands in operation and played with some of the musicians.  The day I arrived, we went out to a dance hall in Kikuyu country.  I also played violin, and it amused me that while I wanted to play African-style guitar, they wanted to hear C&W fiddle -- old-style country is very big in Africa."

After returning, a friend from the punk scene who worked for Island Records asked him to assemble the two-volume Sound D'Afrique anthology, still the finest collection of soukous, the incredible guitar-driven style from Zaire that's dominated African pop music for 20 years or so.  It's essential listening for any globally minded guitarist.

He also recorded several albums with Orchestre Jazira, an Anglo-Ghanaian highlife band.  "As a guitarist, I'm probably best at that highlife feel," he observes, "but I've spent a lot of time trying to learn the Zairian and Kenyan styles, too.  I was particularly influenced by Bavon Marie-Marie, a Zairian guitarist who played with Orchestre Negro Success in the '60s.  He was a very flamboyant player, a stalwart of the Kinshasa gay scene who would outrage people by appearing onstage in a dress, having whitened his face.  He would take a pair of notes, a C and an F over a C chord, say, and hold them until you'd think the fourth was never going to resolve.

But since leaving Jazira, Mandelson has left the gigging to Hijaz and focused primarily on producing records.  He can't pinpoint a single favorite GlobeStyle project, though he confesses a special fondness for Nujum Al-Lail/Stars Of The Night by Sudanese ud [lute] player Abdel Gadir Salim.  "I also like our two new Javanese records, and I always enjoy the South-Serbian brass band album," he adds.  "But for every project I do, ther are 10 or 15 that don't work out.  For example, I'm still trying to record Berber music in South Morocco, and I've only recently been able to complete a record of Peruvian music, which I love very much.  I'd also like to do some more work in Central Asia, but the bureaucracy takes forever."

Bureaucracy isn't GlobeStyle's only hurdle.  "We spent November '89 recording in Mozambique, a country that's having a very hard time right now," reports Ben.  "Between the South African-sponsored guerillas, the crazed American right-wing fundamentalists trying to overthrow Communism with Bibles and rifles, and the young people who have simply grown up as bandits, it's very dangerous.  There were times when we were in more danger than people wanted to tell us, especially in the province between Malawi and Zimbabwe.  It's under siege -- you can only fly in and out.  We had to bus musicians in from the villages, and we had to stop the recording sessions to make sure they got home on time -- after dusk, they'd be ambushed."

Mandelson and his GlobeStyle compatriots may be all over the map in more ways than one, but they share a guiding philosophy.  "We're fans, not musicologists.  We sway to the music like anyone else in the audience, as opposed to saying, 'Hmm -- he's using a passing dominant 7th to modulate to the next key.  Ah!  A cyclical structure -- that's why it's good.'  I can do both, I suppose, but it's much better to say, 'Oh, that moves me,' because that's how everyone else reacts to music.  You only get one ethnomusicologist on every bus."

Notes from a Global Guitarist

"People seem to like the buzzing sound of two strings, vibrating next to each other, and many people play double-stringed instruments for that reason.  It's like putting shells or bottlecaps on an African mbira [thumb piano] to make it rattle -- it brings out the hidden harmonics of the instrument, and -- in a spiritual sense -- its hidden voices.  The ud and bouzouki are both double-stringed, and in Azerbaijan and Persia they play tar and setar.  The Berber-speaking North Africans play mondol, a sort of mando-cello, putting matchsticks between the fixed frets so they can get the notes in between.  Even the guitar started out double-stringed, back when it was a vihuela or lute.  That's why guitar players turn their amps up:  to get the buzzing that's missing from single strings."

"In Africa, there are many more players than instruments.  The bandleader or the record company owns a set of instruments, so they own the band.  Players can be hired or fired at will.  If there's one good guitar, it gets passed around.  If you play lead, you get the Strat; if you play rhythm, you get the Hofner.  Given thoese conditions, it's remarkable to see so many players of such quality.  Still, you don't have a guitar-star culture like we have in the West.  Top session players like Diblo or Manuaku Waku [profiled in the Oct. '88 GP] are known by name, but the public doesn't go guitar-crazy.  I don't think there are air guitarists in Zaire."

"There's an incredible music from around Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia, called batak, which they play on little guitars called kecapi.  It's this great hopping and jumping music, very excited and buzzy.  It's very diatonic -- the people there are Christianized, so there's an influence from Methodist hymns.  They're traditional musicians, but they'll use an amplifier if they have to play a large funeral or wedding.  They're not like folk Nazis here who say you can't put pickup on your such-and-such.  If they had access to a Fender Twin, they'd certainly use it."

"More strings are thrown away in one day in American than get used in Africa in a year.  There just aren't any strings -- even the greatest players have three knots in each one.  A string lasts until it breaks, and then you knot it, and it carries on.  After it goes, you unwind the brake cable from a bicycle.  But here we have spoiled rock gods who change every string on all six of their guitars before every show.  I'd love to put together 'String Aid' -- at the end of performances, everyone would put one used string in a bag, and we'd send them over to people who can really use them."

"In many non-Western cultures, there's always respect for the masters of tradition, because those people, paradoxically, are the innovators.  They absorb tradition and make something new.  You have to have the authority of being able to do the old stuff well enough to say, 'No, I'm not going to do that anymore.'  And that applies just as much to country, jazz, Balinese music, or American pop.  The essence of tradition is change.  These aren't museum pieces."

Hijaz Speaks

The best way to reach Hijaz Mustafa is to call the GlobeStyle offices in London.  "I'll have a look for him," says Ben.  The phone clanks against a desktop, and then Hijaz answers:  "Hello?  You wanted to speak to me?"

I can't quite place your accent.

These days, we have no accent -- we speak first-class languages.  Our English is perfect, our French, German, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian and Serbo-Croat perfect.  But people want so much to believe we are foreign that we have to help them.  We are walking a tightrope.


Yes, between.  It is very, very hard.  The tightrope is stretched, but we do not know what is at either end.

But where are you actually from?

It is kind of a non-specific attribution.  But if you want to interview my mother, I will try to arrange that for you.

A sidebar, perhaps.

Very well, I will arrange my mother to meet you at a salad bar, if you really want that.  But we are actually from a place called Szegerely.

How did your family come to settle in London?

It has to do with warm air currents, thermals, that sort of thing.  We were seduced by the idea of one country being more important than others.  But if you emphasize one place more than others, they start to think they are more important, and that's not good for music in the world.  Today it would be better to have a Mustafa network, with key people in different parts of the world.  We could still make records by sending samples to each other.  But because of litigation, we now just sample our own records.  We can sue ourselves, and still keep the profit with us.

You play many instruments on record, but in concert you stick mostly to the bouzouki, a testament to the versatility of the instrument.  So why has it been neglected by heavy metal artists?

They just look at it the wrong way.  Heavy metal players often play 8-string basses, which is really just a bouzouki two octaves down.  Maybe they have a secret knowledge.  Maybe they like the phasing of the low strings because it makes their flared trousers flap around.  There are certain notes that vibrate your entrails.  But I cannot back this up with scientific thought.

One of the highlights of a Mustafas show is "The Soba Song," a country-swing bouzouki number about the relative merits of various Japanese noodles.

Yes, they played me eight compact discs of this Texas man, Bob Wills and his Playboys.  I think he is very like the Mustafas because he was playing many regional styles for an audience that liked all things.  I am sorry we could not make records with him.

What about newer American music, like Prince?

The Mustafas don't hold with royalty.  One for all and all for one, unless it's a special offer -- then you get two for one.  But you can't catch me, because I keep abreast of the times.  We're still coping with the '60s, because there is so much to digest.  Next, we will attack the '70s.  And when we get to the 20th century it will be really difficult.  But I like it all.  I am very happy.

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