It’s a small storefront shop in the district of Augustins, set back from the lively Rue de Carouge. A charming spot with tumbling plants and jumbled up furniture where you can have something to drink, immerse yourself in the many racks of vinyl and discuss the joys of musical discoveries. Bongo Joe is the brainchild of that hyperactive bunch, Mama Rosin, a group who have over the years painted the Geneva music scene a hue of Cajun - its creation paradoxically accelerated the end of a career that had hit the ground running. Of course, it’s never easy to be in two places at the same time. The paths of Robin Girod and Cyril Yeterian, the group’s figureheads, have today separated only to take complementary parallel directions, with Robin running the independent label, Cheptel Records and the group Duck Duck Grey Duck and L'Orage. (More about Robin Girod, have a look at the article " 36-hour music marathon")
A label and a shop
By twist of fate, it is Cyril Yeterian who is now in charge at Bongo Joe, running things with joyous, community spirit. He recounts the story of this adventure with great, driving passion. "We wanted to add something, to complete the circle of our ancestral continuum. We are musicians, our inspiration ranges from birds singing to other human beings, we collect music, we draw inspiration from each other. Being in a band, going on tour, running a label, … and then having a shop seemed the logical next step. So, we decided to take the risk and dive in head first with the hope of making a living from it". He recalls with emotion some key moments, including the discovery of certain labels and their catalogues, such as Honest Jon's, Sublime Frequencies and Mississipi Records, small record companies that publish and reissue old treasures as well as wonderful, lesser-known, contemporary groups. "During all these years of travelling around everywhere, we often had records in our hands that we wanted to share with the world, so we gave ourselves the opportunity to do this ".
In the footsteps of Georges Bongo Joe Coleman
The desire to open a shop materialized during one of the group’s many tours, specifically during a long flight where Cyril optimized his hours of insomnia by putting together a plan, "like a message in a bottle thrown out to the sea", addressed to the landlord of their building where was an old hairdressing salon at the time. Six months later, the property became available and the landlord, a philanthropic sort, instructed them to specify their project and everything took off. Five years ago, Bongo Joe was born and has since settled into the heart of Geneva, distributing its findings all over the world. The small label "Moi j'connais", which at the time was in charge of releasing the Mama Rosin output became "Bongo Joe", just to simplify things because the original name was too difficult to pronounce in English and did not suit the international domination envisaged.
They owe the name to the musician Georges Bongo Joe Coleman. One of his LPs, released on Mississippi Records, had totally mesmerised them. "We chose it not just because of the name, but more because of the story of black power before its time, a street musician who sent all his children to university, a man who had real political vision". Just for the anecdote, there’s someone in the southern United States delighted to know that somewhere on the other side of the world there’s an establishment bearing the name of their late musician father.
An experimental laboratory
"It's great to have a physical headquarters for a label. This allows people to discover our releases, and vice versa. There are now music lovers who come to Switzerland to see the label's parent company. And since the job of running a label is 90% administrative, therefore rather boring, it’s a really envigorating to see people pass by and to be able to exchange views with them directly".
The concept has continued to grow thanks to the small shop being looked upon as an experimental laboratory: concerts, openings, conferences, in fact any activity or collaboration that is to do with musical sharing. "The idea is really to have a special place to transmit one’s love of music and to just hang out. Personally, I learnt about music culture in record stores. I loved this world, but I also found things that annoyed me about the vinyl universe, like the unpleasant and pedantic salesman, the stereotype of the embittered guy who victimizes himself in a complicated industry. There is also the fetishism of the collector and the disease that goes with it which risks transforming a store into a museum with expensive rare records that spend two years on a shelf without finding a buyer ... I didn’t want that here."
Bongo Joe is pocket-sized. "We are quickly over-run because it’s a very small spot, far from being a proper concert venue and it costs us a lot to organize all these extra activities in practical terms". There’s no regular programming schedule, the team work on a case by case basis, mostly casual luck: a group’s day off that happens to be in town, the launch of a local band’s record, showcases related to the label. The only fixed event is a council-sponsored "Inner Vision" lecture series, which invites all kinds of people with beautiful things to say about music.
Over time, a network has been established that makes use of the venue. "My mailbox is submerged, I do not sleep much and I exhaust the people around me. But it's all great." Managed in an associative way, the Bongo Joe team consists of about ten people who meet once a month to discuss forthcoming events, organize the schedules and the five days of weekly shop opening times. "Every day it's someone else behind the counter which makes things both magical and messy".
20,000 records a year
The label is now expanding and consists of five people from art direction to accounting. Among them, Vincent Bertholet, another hyperactive type, who is musical programmer at the Festival Face Z of Geneva, the Festival de la Cité in Lausanne, and is musician in the Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, also signed to Bongo Joe. "We must respond, or rather take our success in hand. We sell almost 20,000 records a year, that's a lot at the moment. It's worth doing things well", said Cyril Yeterian, citing for example one of the label's signings, the Turkish group Altin Gün, currently selling like hotcakes.
"I am confident about the future, our activities are in full swing. We are becoming professional while staying joyful, even though it's a little less fun than before. We are sharpening our edges, we can afford wages (which remain below the poverty line, of course)... but I'm proud of what I'm doing. That said, we are lucky and unlucky to live in such a rich country where money is not in our hands. In Switzerland, there are no subsidies for record labels. Groups, on the other hand, get some support from the city councils and the cantons, which is good but a little paradoxical, because most people press 1,000 records with the money they receive, sell 200 and the surplus remains eternally in their basements. It's a typically Swiss situation. It would be nice for politicians to understand that a record label also serves as distribution and so make money available for us".
Bongo Joe Mixtape – Retrospective Releases 2017
What will the next step be? "A radio station! We already do mixtapes for the public radio Couleur 3, it would be great and logical to have a Bongo Joe radio station. But I’ll leave the organisation of that up to the others".