In spring 1983 an ‘outdooring’ ceremony was held in a quiet back street off London’s Tottenham Court Road. The occasion, at which drums were played and libations were offered to the ancestors, was the opening of Sterns African Record Centre, a retail outlet, which has since grown into the largest distributor of African records outside Paris, with a catalogue of 3,000 titles, including 100 on their own labels (Sterns and Earthworks), and customers across the globe.
By 1983 the name of Sterns was already synonymous with African music in London. For 30 years, a small electrical shop of that name had given over its back room to a modest display of African discs.
Situated near Warren Street underground station, the old Sterns Electrical had been the only place for African students and visitors to hunt down the popular music of their continent. Behind the short wave radios, electrical fans and kettles could be found, if not the latest, then fairly recent releases by the big names of the 1960s and 1970s, like Franco’s OK Jazz, Prince Nico Mbarga, Ebenezer Obey, the African Brothers and Les Bantous.
When the shop’s lease ran out and the proprietor chose retirement, the African music boom in Britain was just beginning. The King of Juju, Sunny Ade had been signed by Island Records; local labels like Earthworks had begun to release sub-Saharan pop, while discotheques and radio stations were slipping in the odd soukous, highlife or Afrobeat. Yet with the closure of the rickety old appliance shop there was nowhere to buy the records.
Several loose alliances were formed with the aim of setting up a specialist shop; at one stage there were at least three plans to open African record stores in London. But one group seized the initiative by taking over the old name. Their timing was good and they were also in the right place: in Whitfield Street, directly behind the old Sterns Electrical.
The new owners of the name, and the concept of an African record ‘centre’, were Don Bayramian, a naturalised Armenian, Robert Urbanus from Holland and Charles Easmon from Ghana. Easmon was not only the sole African; he was also the only one of the three with music business experience.
A client base had been established thanks to a useful mailing list of customers around the world, inherited from the old Sterns, and several contacts with West African importers. A friendly Lagos entrepreneur aided the influx of Nigerian releases while vital connections were established with Paris-based distributors of francophone records, which have always outsold those from anglophone countries.
On opening their shop, Sterns announced their intentions of making available music from the whole continent; of establishing an international distribution network; and of inaugurating a label to launch new bands and license commercially attractive productions. They succeeded on all three counts.
As the most viable aspect of Sterns, the shop itself was an early success. African customers from across the continent mixed with the growing number of European enthusiasts. On a typically busy day during the mid-80s, visiting stars, local musicians, journalists and disc-jockeys joined regular customers to clog the shop as they scoured the racks for the latest imports from Zaire, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and other countries. Although certain eagerly awaited releases can still take months to arrive from European distributors, there is a constant recharge of titles.
By the end of the 1980s, zouk and salsa music, which always find a place in African discos, were also stocked in the expanding international section. While cassettes have been the preferred format throughout the Third World, African labels were slow to adapt to the CD market. For a while non-African ‘world music’ was moving fastest from the shelves, but recently the pendulum has swung back in favour of African releases on CD and cassette only.
The quantity of records sold over the counter, however, has been only a fraction of the total moved out of the basement headquarters to shops and distributors throughout Britain, Japan, America and Europe. Downstairs from the shop, a warren of offices and storerooms housed some 40,000 items and an array of VDU screens to access the stock control.
Sterns own label was launched with a couple of low-key, highlife records licensed from Ghana and they followed up by introducing locally based African bands to the market. For a while it felt like a record company, with musicians coming, going and hanging out. In the old days of afternoon prohibition, Sterns functioned as a private drinking club, but the musicians were gradually squeezed out by the growing piles of stock. New talent had its chance and, in commercial terms, it failed.
The first ‘house band’ was HI-Life International, who earned themselves a solid reputation in London and continental Europe. One song Salaam Alekoum, became a radio favourite in West Africa, but in Britain, highlife records were not the best sellers by any means.
The label came closer to cracking the home market with Somo Somo, the band led by Zairean guitarist, Fan Fan, who had once played lead with Franco’s OK Jazz. Somo Somo’s brand of international soukous had a particularly British feel to it and for a while, in 1984-1985, the two ‘house bands’ were the best, if not quite the only, African bands in Britain.
Another musician who got a fair crack at the European market was the Nigerian ‘prince’ of Juju, Segun Adewale, who appeared on BBC TV and at Notting Hill Carnival. His was Sterns third album release. They followed by licensing records from Ebenezer Obey, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Mbilia Bel, and produced an original recording by the Gambian griots Malamini Jobarteh and Dembo Konte, titled Jaliya. An album by the South African fusion band, Kintone, was released in 1986. The same year Sterns brought out their 15th record, the double compilation, African Moves, which collected some of the best soukous, highlife and juju from their previous sessions.
Since then the biggest sellers have been licensed products, including two albums by the Ivorian reggae singer Alpha Blondy. The most popular record by far has been Soro by Salif Keita, the ‘electro-griot’ from Mali, which, with overall sales of 60,000 has proven to be the closest Sterns has come to a mainstream hit.
The success of Soro, launched with perfect synchronicity with a spectacular West End performance, opened up a new avenue for Sterns as they celebrated their fifth anniversary with an exclusive contract to market the catalogue of the disc’s hot-shot producer, Ibrahima Sylla. The Paris-based Senegalese producer with the golden touch followed up with albums by the Zaireans favourites Sam Mangwana and Pepe Kalle, and bright new hopes from the Sahel region, Kasse Mady, Nahawa Doumbia and Baaba Maal, who is now dipping his toes into the mainstream.
While never overtly promoting concerts, Sterns have been involved behind the scenes with many of the major African music events in Britain. They helped introduce artistes to the defunct GLC (greater London Council), the Notting Hill Carnival, the WOMAD festivals, Sport Aid and a clutch of private and grant-aided promoters.
Their experience in negotiating the bureaucracy of visas, work permits and airline ticketing is frequently called on. And in ten years, there have, of course, been some foul-ups: like the time they helped one promoter fly a juju band from Nigeria to Holland via London, only for the group to miss their connection in London and thereby miss the gigs; or the francophone musician who talked Sterns into paying his studio time, only to sign the recording over to another label - on the same day.
But while disasters have been as infrequent as outright triumphs, Sterns have established a sound business base for the marketing of African music. They maintain cordial relations with most of the African musicians in London and the small independent record labels who need an organised outlet for their releases. Among the labels with P&D (pressing and distribution) deals were Riverboat, Rogue, Touch and RetroAfric, which releases African archive classics at a slow but steady rate.
The success - or at least, survival - of Sterns comes from an instinctive response, which has occasionally left them floundering. But rather than trying to set the taste, by actively promoting particular records, they have settled back to reflect, and to react to, popular developments in Africa and other territories where Africans record.
Paris is the obvious barometer, with experienced producers and a continuous turn-around of top-ranking musicians feeding demand from the healthy francophone record market. Although practically every African musician who visits London expresses a desire to record here, no one, since Sunny Ade’s days at Island, has done a major league album. Ironically, the few records which Sterns have produced themselves have been recorded in Paris and Brussels (and now New York); the original production ‘Hello Hello’, recorded in Brussels, coming from Bana OK, reunited them with Mose Fan Fan, one of their first signings.
African music held its own with the francophone sounds still dominant, Zairean soukous has always had a strong following, but since that county’s economic and social collapse, the output has fallen drastically. European listeners have fallen for the Sahel rhythms from Senegal and Mali, which Sterns tapped with releases by Ami Koita, Oumou Dioubate, Orchestre Baobab and a series of classic compilations of early Youssou N’Dour (Etoile de Dakar, vols 1-4) - the man who has taken African music further round the world than anyone.
The hit Africando release, Trovador, united Senegalese singers with New York salseros in a new-world rumba fusion that reflects the roots of much African pop. It has created a buzz in New York, where Sterns have had an office and distribution centre since 1989. (Their biggest hit, and dancefloor smash in NY, was Yay Boy from the Tierra Tradicional album, their second album, and more recently the salsa version of Khaled’s Aiche from Baloba, the 4th release)
Old Mr Stern would be surprised to see how far his name has spread and as a friend of Africa he would feel proud.