At this present time, when it can seem that there are countless self-appointed Little Englanders spouting off that they know what the voters of the UK desire (namely to restrict access from and to the UK – and in doing so dog-whistle and demonise anyone who does not share their jingoistic shite), it’s a pleasure to focus on one UK man’s record label and his single-handed attempt to bolster the connections between the UK, the continent of Africa and friends across the water in the USA.
Specifically, over the course of re-issuing 15 pieces of vinyl that vary between ‘hard to find’ and ‘as common as hen’s teeth’, Chris Webb and his Kalita Records has quietly shown they are part of the ‘other’ Britain who remain keen and committed citizens of the world
Kalita have fashioned themselves as a nexus between many shades of black music and seem especially keen on re-issuing slept on or plain unknown releases which defy easy description or genre categorisation: IWABO‘s ‘Reggae Down’ with its Light of the World/Central Line air of funk; Nana Tuffour rocking a tight Jam & Lewis-like percussion line; the sweet romance of Vance and Suzzanne emanating from inside an Arp-filled lovenest or the goth-y Roland-isms of Emerson.
I didn’t ask Chris how he voted in the Europe referendum, but instead sent him a small number of questions to find out how one goes from loving vinyl to reissuing it. His answers have only been briefly edited for clarity.
What’s your background?
I was raised in Hertfordshire and Dorset, before studying an undergraduate degree in law at Bristol University and then post-grad law at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.
Whilst in Bristol, I fell in love with dance music (Bristol has a fantastic music scene for all types of tastes), and began collecting records and delving deeper into the world of disco. Once I moved to London, every Saturday I helped out at Love Vinyl, a record shop in Hoxton dedicated primarily to black music – disco, funk, jazz, Afro, house, soul and all things in-between, which is run by four extremely knowledgeable DJs and collectors who taught me a lot. From there, the obsession with disco and Afro deepened, which led to me trying to find artists whose music I loved and Kalita was born.
What was your first record you bought, first gig attended, your first club night?
First record bought was actually four records at a charity shop in Dorset: Sister Sledge‘s ‘We Are Family’, Phil Collins‘ ‘Face Value’, and two others that I’ve since forgotten. I put my name down at the shop for their next turntable that they had available, and a week later they gave me a call and sold me an Acoustic Research table at a very fair price. Not sure what the first gig or club night was, or where in particular, but definitely in Bristol.
The greatest influence on you as a music lover/company boss?
I used to live with one of the owners of Love Vinyl, Roual Galloway. He taught me a lot about business, dance music and the vinyl world. I’ll always be extremely grateful to him for his help that he gave me.
Were you a record collector prior to Kalita?
Yes, most collecting the same kind of sounds that I release on the label. Afro/Caribbean, disco and a little bit of soul. I buy a lot less records now than I used to, but the expense still seems to be rising!
Has black music always been your main focus/passion?
Prior to setting up Kalita, were you involved in the music industry in any way – DJing, promoting, vinyl dealing?
Apart from working at Love Vinyl from late 2015 to around 2016/17, I also joined Juno Records in August 2016. Juno were very supportive of Kalita, which I first started running in September 2016.
Why start a label? There are quite a few re-issue labels in the UK and worldwide…
At the time, a lot of music that I loved was being re-released, but I didn’t know any more about the artist/song/original label than I did beforehand, which I found frustrating. There’s often a really great story as to why records which are great didn’t do as well as they should have, be it the band splitting up, lack of funding, distribution failures or one of the many number of other possible reasons that I’ve encountered. I wanted to know the story, as well as be able to listen to the music.
Rarity, obscurity, cost and return, musical/cultural significance – could you put these in order of preference and explain why?
For me, I love to learn about the underdogs. The artists who put out fantastically sounding music, but which didn’t have the same chances as those artists who were on the major labels. So I tend to find myself looking at rarity and obscurity first, because, linking to my previous response, there’s always a story there which I know I’ll find interesting when I learn it.
What’s the average amount of time spent on each of your releases from start to finish?
It can totally vary. The unreleased Emerson album took five years, Vance and Suzzanne three years, and Stirling March one year, for example. So it really depends on a multitude of factors, such as how long it takes to find and/or convince the artist/rights owner, to get the audio or artwork ready for release, production and manufacturing issues etc.
But, on average, about a year or year-and-a-half I guess. But that means we have a solid amount of time to put out heart into making a great product, which I would much prefer than rushing a release through.
Which has been the most ‘rewarding’ release to have worked on and why?
All of the releases I find rewarding, because I get to see the smiles on the artist’s face when they hold up a copy of the Kalita release. That for me is the most satisfying part. But one release in particular was Emerson, just because for me it was a five-year journey from starting to contact him to being able to release it on Record Store Day this year. In addition, the album was never released at the time, so I was extremely grateful to be able to put that right.
Have there certain releases that you’ve not managed to secure rights to?
On the odd occasion, either because another label is already working with the music, or because I can’t find the rights holders. One example would be Continentals‘ ‘I’m Ready To Get Down’ [Imagine Sly Stone with splintered fingers coaxing a Casio to make wheezy love], which is this amazing piece of lo-fi Afro mid-point between boogie and house, a kind of proto-house release that was distributed across Africa and in America, but which pretty much no information exists on. Maybe one day we’ll get there.
With regard to African acts and releases, do you think you gravitate towards certain countries i.e. Ghana? Is that simply your musical appreciation or is it a testament to it/they being Anglophone countries and/or a nation which had its own pressing plant(s) such as Ghana and Nigeria back in the day?
I tend to be drawn to West Africa, in particular Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Ghana. That’s where the biggest disco, boogie and funk scenes were, in particular Lagos of course, with artists from all over the continent travelling there as the musical hub and land of promise. The reason why they had those scenes, those well-established pressing plants, etcetera, is a large part due to them being Anglophone and Francophone countries and those links back to the US, France, the UK, etc.
Is it a one-man operation or do you have friends/family/spotters helping you out?
As you build up your relations with artists, they are normally willing to help you contact other artists that you can’t find, if they are able to. So you kind of build up a network of friendly contacts. However, on the label-side, it’s just myself at the moment.
Where do you see yourself and Kalita in five years? Ten years?
Hopefully still putting out music that we love, certainly old sounds but who knows, maybe new music too! Keep those ears peeled.
If you could make one lasting real difference to musical appreciation/production, what would it be?
I think one project that we will be releasing next year fits here quite well. It’s an exploration of the progression in Ghanaian dance music from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, when highlife and other traditional Ghanaian sounds merged with disco, boogie and synths to create what’s called ‘burger highlife‘. A lot of fantastic music to be celebrated, and we can’t wait.
Find out more at http://www.kalitarecords.co.uk
This article is dedicated to another funk-thinking, globe-crossing Englishman, Ginger Baker (1939 – 2019).