Q&A With Karl Hector

Remix interviews Karl Hector about his Karl Hector and the Malcouns release, Sahara Swing.

Remix talked with Karl Hector about the new Karl Hector & The Malcouns record, Sahara Swing (Stones Throw, 2008), and learned that visa problems will prevent him from touring to support it anytime soon. We are bummed. The Poets of Rhythm, however, may work some of the material into their live sets.

What have you been doing since the '96 release of the Funk Pilots 7-inch, "Free I Am Gonna Be"?
After returning to Africa, I continued to study percussion in Ghana and Mali. For a short time, I tried to run my own band. But in Africa it's very difficult to have a band because you must own all the equipment and instruments. Most musicians are so poor that they can't buy their own instruments or amps. I just returned to making traditional music for some time.

How did Sahara Swing materialize? How did you decide to make an instrumental record of Afrofunk flavor with a group of Germans?
I made a short trip to London in 2006, and after all those years, I really enjoyed being back in Europe. I went to Paris to look for Tony Allen [legendary Fela Kuti drummer], but he was away. So I called Jay Whitefield from the Whitefield Brothers and he invited me to stay at his place as long as I wanted. Whenever he was home from tour, we went to the studio to jam.

All these Munich guys were heavy into the Ethiopian pentatonic at that time, so I showed them some western African grooves and we started laying down backing tracks. These guys know their stuff and we just started collecting compositions. We never planned to record an album, but everybody had so much fun that we just kept on recording.

How did you reconnect with the Whitefield Brothers and other members of the Poets of Rhythm after such a long layoff? Had you been working with them quietly during the past decade?
I first met them at a concert and really liked their sound. When I had the opportunity to extend my European trip, I just called them up. I hadn't heard from them in 10 years.

Are German musicians the best kept secret in funk? Or are the Poets just a wonderful anomaly?
I guess Germans have a very eclectic way of approaching music. The Poets also somehow manage to put in a healthy dose of whiteboy soul. It's always difficult to try and capture the feel of a continent with a completely different tradition, but nowadays everything is so mixed up anyway.

Fela, Mulatu [Astatke] and many others also left Africa to study music and brought back jazz and blues influences, fusions of African and European roots themselves, and combined them with their heritage to make the foundation for new styles. For years, musicians from all over the world were studying foreign music and combining it with their heritage to make it into something new. I hope at some point, all music of the world will be united into the one true fusion and become the universal language.

Other than the Poets being based there, what's good about recording in Germany? Does the pilsner tend to let the funk flow?
As far as I know, Munich really is the capital of beer. They probably have more breweries than recording studios. The beer gardens are great, as well. At some point I was thinking about importing this idea to Africa.

This record shares the loose-groove spirit of contemporary bands like Antibalas, Budos Band, instrumental Beastie Boys, even the Dap Kings and Daptone label sound. Do you listen to any of those groups?
Jay played me the Budos Band record, the one with the scorpion on the cover [Budos Band II, Daptone, 2007]. I remember they had strong melodies. I also remember when Jay came back from a tour of England, he said they'd opened for Antibalas and said they'd put on a great afrobeat show. But the others I don't know.

What kind of studios did you record in?
When I was there, we only recorded at two different studios: 45 Studios in Munich and Lovelite Studio in Berlin, where we went to do horn overdubs. The equipment they used all looked pretty dusty and old, like the same stuff we had at home in the '60s and '70s. They had a Vox organ and a Tascam tape machine, but also loads of other stuff I don't remember.

The record has a very live and loose feel. How did the sessions progress? Was everyone in the same room and were these largely one- or two-take affairs? Or was it more structured?
Most of the time Mr. Whitefield, the two guys from the Malcouns and I made jam sessions where we developed basic groove ideas. Afterwards we listened back to the tapes and found the best parts. These were worked into structures and topped with themes or vocal parts. Sometimes one person would bring a finished composition and we worked out the arrangement together. There was a maximum of two takes. I think most of the stuff that made the album was first take.

There's a great dusty texture to the record, and a real throwback sound due to all the organs and keyboards and various percussion. What instruments were you using?
Thomas [Myland, of the Malcouns] has an arsenal of keyboards: Clavinet, organ, Pianotone, acoustic piano, electric piano and a weird bass keyboard that he used on the track "Nyx." Jay mostly played semi-acoustic guitars and bass. They also used an African balafon, which is like a marimba, a wooden type of xylophone.

What are you currently listening to?
I mostly listen to field recordings from all over the world, plus traditional African or hybrid African music like Nadi Qamar. He invented and mastered the Mama-Likembi, a kind of a multi-octave kalimba. He makes some beautiful, hypnotic and very complex things on this instrument.—Dan Frio


Sahara Swing (Stones Throw)
Funky motherland meditations via Munich

A low-flying artist who last made noise in 1996 (on a 7-inch by the Funk Pilots), Hector applies his African percussion obsession to this instrumental slab of afrofunk, joined by the funkiest musicians east of the Rhine, the Poets of Rhythm.

Swing hangs its crunchy keys and Clavinets, wah-guitar and raspy horns on a loose-limbed backbeat trimmed with thumb pianos, xylophones and gourd shakers. It's an intoxicating, textural blend equally inspired by afrobeat ("Nyx," "Followed Path") and '70s jazz grease (the Grant Green strut of "Passau Run").

If the Beastie Boys played a residency at some West African club, it would sound like this.—Dan Frio [4 out of 5 stars]