As any fule journalist kno, interviewing one of your pals is... tricky. On the one hand, you know a lot more about the subject than any writer fresh to it; on the other it's easy to get sidetracked into minutiae. But it was clearly time that fRoots had a proper talk to musician, producer and all-around world music good guy Ben Mandelson. We interviewed him many moons ago at the early '80s birth of his label GlobeStyle Records, and several times that decade wearing his Hijaz fez as ringleader of the 3 Mustaphas 3, one of the few bands to which you can justifiably apply the over-used adjective 'legendary'. But many Billie Jo Mustaphas have jumped off the Szegerely Bridge since then. Mustapha alumnae have made their marks in numerous ways, and indeed several have related their own stories to the fRoots readership notably Lu 'Uncle Patrel' Edmonds in fR202 and Colin 'Sabah Habas' Bass in fR182/3. These days, both Ben and Lu are to be found Bloking for Billy Bragg, bringing together several continuing threads from our back pages in a multi-cultural English artistic rebirth for the ex-Barking chap that's up there with doing an Emmylou.
It was obvious that the usual habit of trying to interview the subject in his house, my house or a local cafe was not going to keep us focused. So just like I'd done with Lu the year before, I hauled him off into a corner at Womex in Berlin, switched on the recorder and pressed the button marked 'biography'?
He was born in Liverpool, acquired a guitar from a travelling Granny, and started going to the local folk club at the Mitre (where Veteran's John Howson was a resident) at an early age.
"I started about 15 or 16 being an extremely bad get-up-and-play floor singer and guitarist. Doing some kind of warped trad folk, whatever was floating around at the time, that I was listening to: people like Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, and things I thought that were pretty good."
What's all this about a youthful Spinners fixation, old chap?
"The Spinners were a big Liverpool band and I used to go and see them at their club. In fact the first record, the first folk (either with or without inverted commas) record that I heard was the first Spinners record. I'd go down to their club, and I'd see people like Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. When you're 13, 14, 15 it does have the desired effect. So I'm always a bit worried when people diss The Spinners, because they inspired me and got me very excited about lots of kinds of music. They may have worn matching shirts, but then I spent a lot of my life in a matching shirt, so it's OK."
"Everything was so random. It's easy now with world music and folk music, because if anything the problem is there's much too much out there. You can hear anything you want. For me there no organisation by style, period or culture. You'd got a record Billy Pigg, a record of Hank Williams, and a record of Ornette Coleman and they were all the same the only thing that linked them was that you had got them and somehow tried to decipher them and see how they were related to each other and how they were related to you."
"I had a record by Sonny Boy Williamson, with Yank Rachel and Sleepy John Estes and I wanted to be a harmonica player, and I wanted to be a mandolin player. I had Bluebird Blues and I used to play the whole album through playing all the mandolin parts, and I'd play it again playing all the harmonica parts, and I'd play it again playing all the guitar parts, and drove my mother crazy. But when you're that age, 15 to 18, you have an obsession beyond the realistic. It probably takes the place of being a traditional musician where you learn to play from the age of five and you play the same thing over and over again. Whereas for us you have to create that learning space and drive your mother mad, and she knocks on your door and says 'What are you listening to?'; 'But mummy it's Billy Pigg, he's a Northumbrian piper'; 'Come down and have your supper!'"
After a "very big sideways leap into freeform squeaky avant garde jazz", Ben first appeared above the parapet of mild fame in a band called the Amazorblades, based in Brighton in the mid-'70s, just before punk rock.
"I'd moved down to Brighton with a buddy Rob Keyloch, with whom I'm still working on all sorts of record productions. In Amazorblades we also had Chopper, who's now in Oysterband. Rob and I were writing songs together and we said because this was before punk the only way to move in the music business was to move to London, because it was a centralised industry. Brighton was close and and basically Rob and I made some money to do that by busking our way to Florence in Italy with guitar and violin, and we wrote some songs on the way. Then we did the Amazorblades thing, and we had a single out on Chiswick Records, the original pop and punk imprint of Ace Records. Roger Armstrong, he of Ace and now GlobeStyle and all the rest of it, produced the single, I think in 1977."
"We became caught up in the whole punk wars thing. I had hair down to my knees and a gigantic beard which you could use to scour commercial cooking pots and still have change at the end of it, so I didn't really look very good, but in a funny way that made me a very punk anti-punk. We played all the punk venues, which meant that we just took our original record and played it three times as fast. We got spat at incessantly. It was fine. Punk is a real modern British folk tradition, and when you see on postcards 'Greetings from London', and it's no longer pearly kings but pearly punks, you know a new kind of folk culture has been designed and it's now in the tradition!"
"Then somebody called me and said 'Come up to Liverpool and work in a theatre. Would you like to be in a musical?' So I made lots of money playing lots of instruments and I put the money under my bed, and somehow I ended up back in Amsterdam in a bluegrass band. That made me think I'd go and look at America and I took my theatre money and went in 1979 with my fiddle on my back, the traditional thing. I took the Greyhounds and I wandered up and down, and ended up in Austin, Texas. I really got into Western Swing and honky-tonk and bluegrass and Tex-Mex and norteño stuff just by being there and wandering around."
Another brief spell was in old college friend Howard Devoto's arty band Magazine, which gave Ben his first studio experience of a proper album session, and a publishing advance. In the meantime he'd been very involved with African music.
"I used to listen to John Peel and he used to play an acoustic guitarist from what was then The Congo, called Mwenda Jean Bosco. I was just captivated by that. I thought it was fantastic. It chimed with the stuff I'd heard, people like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and Davey Graham. I kind of fell into it. Because there was no structure at all in finding out about this music, basically whatever you found, be it a modern Congolese 45 or an old Ghanaian hi-life record, or a Balkan record, you had to make the sense out of it. It's so much easier today. All the context is given to you. Then it was completely do-it-yourself, self-created. I can remember the day when we first moved to London with the Amazorblades. There was a record shop, and downstairs they had what they called 'export records', and I bought a whole album of Zairean music, I think it was by Verkys and Orchestre Vévé, Dynamite Verkys, it was called. I ran back into the flat and said 'Look at this, it's a whole album of this stuff', because we'd only found old 45s and 78s. We'd never had a whole album, and he was on the front in a kitsch purple suit and a tam o'shanter, he looked from a different planet. It was completely wonderful."
"By this time Chopper was in a band called OK Jive, which was one of the first power-pop African bands to try and mix Congolese and Kenyan music with English music. Anyway, I took my publishing money, and I chummed up with a guy called Bavon Wayne Wayne, a while Kenyan guy who'd been a session guitar player and had taken his name from the legendary guitar player Bavon Marie Marie, the lost dead brother of Franco. He was the featured guitar player in Orchestre Negro Success and there are still things on there, that rough, greasy, electric, Latin-into-national-Zairean-identity music, that I think are the best that you can ever get. So many people have been kind enough to say 'Oy, listen to this, you'll like it really'. I very much like to do that to people too. It's kind of the extended folk process that we're in. If we can't actually pass on the music that we play on our instruments, at least we can pass on the music we play on our record players."
"Wayne took me to Nairobi and we wandered around the highlands of Kenya. He'd worked with a Kikuyu guy called Mr Kamaru and basically we ended up being his backing band doing weird tours of the mountainsides of Kenya. As these things always happen, although I wanted to be a guitar player I ended up playing fiddle because they're really into country & western. So I was in Kamaru's Kikuyu Revue for a little while, wandering about playing my fiddle, and Wayne played guitar. I did sessions, and produced records and played on records, all sorts of weird shit. I played guitar on some, I played fiddle. I played xylophone on one. I wasn't there very long, but I learned a little, and I came back, but it was a very important moment for me."
After his return from Kenya, Ben's next major involvement was with trailblazing early '80s London based African-style band Orchestre Jazira.
"They were one of the bands that you get a lot now, a mixture of several different styles and players, with some local English musicians, playing a local variant of their different kinds of music and hopefully making a new syncretic music. Basically, pretty much a Ghanaian style band with a lot of Sierra Leonean input. The classic line-up had Jane Shorter playing tenor sax, and Sofi Hellborg playing alto Jane and Sofi ended up being with Mory Kante in Paris and being his horn section and Fish Krish, who' still around doing lots of world music things, was playing trombone with us, so that was our horn section. And Nigel [Watson, to become Houzam Mustapha] and Colin [Bass, subsequently Sabah Habas] later. In fact, a lot of the Mustaphas had their African education in Jazira, including the horn section, percussion, bass and drums."
So how did the notion of the Mustaphas come about? Whose idea was it?
"I think it was Tim Fienburgh, who was later to transform himself into Niaveti Mustapha. I'd known Tim and the scene because he'd been in a band called the C-Sharps, which was a kind of Cajun-zydeco band which had mutated into The Republic, which Charlie Gillett signed for Oval. Tim had Sarah-Jane Morris singing and various other junior Mustaphettes to come. Lavra had sung in The Republic, and I think we stole our string section from them. One day Tim and I were jawing and he said 'Wouldn't it be great if we did some kind of weird Balkan wedding band thing'. And I said 'If we do it I'll play banjo and Hawaiian guitar and you play accordeon and we'll get some saxophone players.' It's one of the things that you talk about. Kim Burton [Kemo Mustapha] had done lots and lots of Balkan things, and is an exceptionally fine accordeon player in all the different Balkan idioms, as well as being the top Latin piano player of our time. Everybody kind of fell into it, bit by bit."
"The whole Mustapha experience was a kind of parallel life-form in another universe. We never felt that it was a career band. We felt it was the band where we could do all the crazy things so we could turn up and play for free at a wedding, or we could say 'You want us to play for £5,000 at your cigarette festival, fuck off! We're not going to do it.'"
Those who never encountered the Mustaphas (and pretty certainly now never will other than on record) missed one of musical life's great 'other' experiences. Here you had a band so greatly and diversely talented that a tune might start in the Balkans, go via Nigeria and end up in Cuba, all played in a way which showed huge love of and immersion in the sources, not just a skill for pastiche. Their stage performance were a controlled surreal mayhem: even their contract riders were bizarre (a fully stocked fridge on stage, a band to play for them in the dressing room) and it was surrounded by a crazy mythology about them being from this hard-to-locate Balkan city called Szegerely.
"The music was totally natural. You listen to those records, you play the music. It's not important that people believe that the Mustaphas grew up in a beautiful city called Szegerely, but it's important that people have the chance to enjoy the fun of knowing and not knowing what is fun and what is folklore and what is theatre and what is humour all those boundaries are very important. When you have those kinds of riders and you have that kind of PR and that kind of involvement and that kind of pleasure, it makes a great show and everybody loves it. It's a wonderful thing to do. I don't regret any of those things. I'd say it was one of the greatest things I've ever done"
So is the experience repeatable?
"You can't piss in the same river twice, and the river in Szegerely is very turbulent. I wouldn't even think of untrousering for that experience. These days I see lots of bands who are the bastard sons and daughters and nephews and nieces of Mustapha everywhere. Really, lots and lots of bands, and basically we did the hard things so they didn't have to. Humour in music is a lightness which is extremely important. A problem with a lot of the sons and daughters of Mustapha, they're so dull and so serious. Bring on Brak Mustapha and get a painting done, and all the rest of it. That's really how it works. The hokum and hilarity is all part of it. It's not a side product."
There were various 'Mustapha plays with...' projects too. For a while their rhythm section in particular became the session players of choice for musicians from several continents.
"We recorded with Stella Chiweshe, Rinken Band, we did the famous live London concert with Ofra Haza, her Yemenite songs. God knows why we didn't record it..." (In the first half the Mustaphas came on and sang songs in Arabic and the hardcore Jewish part of the audience got up and walked out saying "How dare you have this Arabic band on with our star Yemenite Jewish singer". In the second half, the Mustaphas came on and backed her.) "And she sang songs in Arabic too, in Yemenite Arabic, in Hebrew and Aramaic, so there's no pleasing some folks. It was a fantastic night. We did that. We worked with the Jali Roll Orchestra which was Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh, we did the first Tarika Sammy record the first Malagasy fusion album... lots of things as session hands for hire."
When the Mustaphas were on the scene, you'd occasionally get some PC dullard reviewing them who couldn't see the wood for the trees (or here the exceptional and inventive music for the fezzes and pseudonyms). But increasingly these days their musical stature is getting the acknowledgement it deserves. As Mark Ellingham concludes in the Rough Guide to World Music: "They were in retrospect extraordinary trailblazing pioneers... and arguably more influential on world roots music making than better known popularisers like Ry Cooder, Paul Simon and David Byrne." Yes.
No more live band, then, but possibly another record? "We have an archive of live stuff and private things and weirdness. Colin and I are talking about doing it. It's narrowing the stuff down some of the tapes are in penal servitude in places where they shouldn't be and they have to be released."
We're only scratching the surface here. In addition to his 'main' bands, Ben/Hijaz the musician had a side-career that would turn a Pete Frame family tree into a small thicket. Amongst it all he was a temporary Mekon and guest Tiger Moth, and he's backed Bob Copper singing Sleepy John Estes, he played the part of steel guitarist Don Helms in the theatre show of Hank Williams, The Show He Never Gave, was a Mighty Clouds Of Dust conspirator with the odd Pogue, contributed to a Khaled hit, sessioned for Kirsty MacColl and helped save Nelson Mandela.
"That was one of Jerry Dammers' things. It wasn't the Free Nelson Mandela concert, it was Wind of Change, the SWAPO Singers. We paraded outside the South African embassy and lo and behold a few years later he was released, so it worked. Hurrah! I also did a session on one of the Khaled singles or albums, and sold millions. You can hear me, Screaming Hank Mustapha, with 13 seconds of great violin on that and the rest of it they dumped. I don't blame them because it was crap."
Alongside his career as a musician, Ben got involved in the business of putting out records. He helped compile the early '80s Sound d'Afrique albums, coining the descriptive tag soukous in the process, which has since enjoyed a bit of mileage. But his other major contribution to the industry of human happiness was the founding of the GlobeStyle label. When he was in Kenya, he'd encountered the mighty Samba Mapangala & Orchestre Virunga and tried to licence their Malako Disco to be the first GlobeStyle release. That didn't happen (Jumbo Vanrenen and Earthworks got there first: it's now on our 20th anniversary Routes compilation) but after licensing in some other notable albums, Ben and Roger Armstrong reached the inevitable conclusion that they ought to go out and originate recordings themselves. And so to Madagascar in '85.
"Colin Sabah Habas Mustapha who was playing in Orchestra Jazira, had been working in France with a guy called Jim Cuomo, and Colin said 'Jim has been to Madagascar, why don't you meet him?' Jim said, 'If you like Madagascar, there's no point in licensing. Why don't you go?' Jim helped to fix it up. And it kind of goes round and round. He knew our translator, Hanitra, who ends up being Tarika now. They say God moves in mysterious ways, but you start to think maybe God makes bagels and quoits out of our lives, and turns them into weird chains. As our DNA is chained, so is our fate chained up."
"After that we did various things in Zanzibar, went up and down Kenya. A lot of the things I did in Kenya were with Werner Graebner. Kim and I went a few times to the Balkans. We went to Albania together and did some recordings there, we went to Bosnia. I also went to Mali with Lucy Duran to record Bajourou. I've been to lots of places to do lots of recording. We did a lot of GlobeStyle stuff, and we're still doing a lot . We've got new records out. Our current release is number 98, which is music from Xinjiang, Chinese Turkestan, Muslim Turkic music, and by gosh, we will get to number 100 and have a big party!"
Ben's accumulated wisdom from hearing all this different music and acquiring the skills to judge which was interesting, which was saleable, which was genuine, and which might turn people on, was harnessed to direct the artistic input of Womex. How did he fall into that?
"I fell into it sideways. Borkowsky, who is the current producer and director of Womex, basically pushed me into it, and he's pushed me into a lot of things. I've done TV shows he's made me do, though I've never thought I could do them. I've produced records all over the place he made me do. I've done compering. I've done all sorts of things because he and others have seen in me something that could either be used, or exploited more likely! And I've learned a lot, thanks to other people. I'd been involved, as Lu Edmonds has been, with the pre-Womex thing at the Berlin Independence Days. Borkowsky had wangled some money to bring Lu over to work on the planning logistics of the pre-Womex, I picked up some of the stuff that Lu laid down. It all goes round. People do the work and you pick up on it. It's not created from zero. I just fell into it, and it felt like a part time thing I could do and I gave it four years. I paid my debt to society by shaping Womex, and I can say that it's a very successful event."
"The Womex thing took a lot out of me, because I put a lot into it, and I want to say how hard that team worked in the founding years. I'm very proud of what Womex has achieved and it's so great that I can now come to Womex as a civilian and see how good it is. My hat goes off to the Woman team for doing it."
Not long after Ben retired from being Womex dartboard, there came the cry "We need some blokes for Billy".
"I saw, and I do see, my career as pretty much a record producer. Basically since the Mustaphas stopped in 1991 I didn't really think about playing, apart from some odd sessions. I never thought that I would do any playing again, until maybe two, two-and-a-half years ago, the Blessed Sir William of Bragg called me up and said 'Ben, help. I have several gigs I need to do for this Woody Guthrie project. Can you help me find some musicians because the Wilco band can't make some shows in the UK.' 'Okay, yes, yes, yes.' I had a meet up with him and I attempted to help him put a bunch of humans together. It wasn't my intention to play. It was 'Well I might play, I don't know, who knows?' and I got twisted into doing it. And the rest, as they say, is mystery!"
"I helped Bill put together the band and that has Lu in it playing saz and cümbus and I'm playing baritone bouzouki and lap steel. Billy's singing and playing, and there's Simon Edwards and Martyn Barker. Martyn, Lu and Simon were Shriekbacks, and Martyn, Lu and I are mates, and it kind of all fell together. Billy had the masterstroke adding Ian McLagan, the wonderful Hammond player extraordinaire from The Faces and Small Faces and various things. It's been very interesting with Mac. He's got all those different American and London styles down, but had never really heard too much South African groove accordeon, or Balkan weirdness, or rai and things, but he just goes 'Oh that sounds good, I'll play that' and doesn't have any quizzical beard-scratching and frontier problems. So it's a really great band."
Has he reached a nice balance now, being in a band that tours in blocks so he can be a musician, but take time off from that to be a record producer, all the while rifling through strange music shops to find this music that enthuses him? Is he living in the style to which he'd like to become accustomed?
"Probably. I've got some production jobs in the offing which may or may not happen. I've just finished an album with a ladies' group called Tiharea from south Madagascar, which is on Music & Words and it's very nice. Back to Madgascar, more bagels and quoits. As always, the problem with my record production is that people feel that as I'm the house producer for GlobeStyle I'm not available to do anything else. All the things that Real World have done at their recording weeks, I've never been asked to be there as a musician or as a producer. Yes I can be asked to do production jobs and yes I might say no, but I am a real, classic, genuine freelance."
For years he's been trying to convince Martin Carthy and John Kilpatrick to let him produce them, with negligible results.
"I've approached Martin over the years and the great thing is that every time it's as if new, because he sees me looming and you can see his brain going 'Who's this guy? Oh it's that guy. Oh not him again'! I've always wanted to make an album with him and every so often I give him world-musicky CDs and say 'This could be interesting' and he laughs and backs away. I wouldn't mind doing an album with Martin Carthy. Working with Billy's the first time in 20 years that I've worked with somebody in my own language. I was thinking about that recently, seeing the reaction of the audience getting the lyrical content as well as the emotional. With world music it's all the emotion and none of the responsibility for a lot of people! It's very interesting to go back to my native language."
I point out to Ben that some of the languages he knows are not of the spoken variety. When the Dembo Konte/Kausu Kuyateh Jali Roll record came out, on which Ben/Hijaz had played guitar, we went out to The Gambia with a suitcase full of cassettes to prevent them getting done over by the bootleggers. While we were there the record became an instant radio and market ghetto-blaster hit. People kept rushing up to Dembo and saying how wonderful the new record was, and he kept introducing Ben saying 'and this is the guitarist'. People would fall about laughing saying "Big joke, Konte, but no, no, no, it's a Malian playing on there" so he obviously had learned how to speak Malian on guitar.
Of course, part of what he (and Lu) is now doing with The Blokes is making great new music that they actually made in the Mustaphas, but now as an accompaniment that's appropriate to a great song that's part of a great stage performance. It's exactly the same skills on exactly the same instruments, applied in a different way, but maybe now the audience is ready for it.
"Well, I don't know because Billy's audience is a very nice and very loving kind of audience generally. I don't think they notice the kind of banjos that Lu and I play. I think they just hear the sound. People probably go 'Billy's on stage, he's got these instruments, it must be fine. If Billy likes them in the band they're great.' Maybe somebody will say 'What's that funny shaped guitar,' pointing to one of several. But they just like the sound it makes, and I think that's fine."
"I'd like to stress how peculiar it has all been in this fledgling world music business, finding out how many strange connections come about 20 years later. It ain't bad, and I'm still a kid, and funnily enough I still feel about music and playing the way I felt when I was 18 or 20. And records I listened to when I was 18 or 20 like Barrister or Shirati Jazz, all sorts of people, I never dreamed in a thousand years I'd end up going to where they live and producing records with them and making records with them. It's amazing to have had that opportunity. It's wonderful when these things fall into place. It's been great."