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The Tiniest Music Empire in Switzerland

«The world is fucked up, and music fills the emptiness», says Cyril Yeterian, musician with Mama Rosin, co-owner of the «Moi J’Connais» record label and «Bongo Joe» café and record shop in Geneva. The label won an award for best Swiss record label, and the café is a great place to visit in Geneva. An interview.

[Thomas Burkhalter]: Maybe first introduce yourself
[Cyril Yeterian]: I’m Cyril. I’m a musician first. I’ve played a lot and everywhere with our band Mama Rosin [1] in the last seven years. In 2010 me and Robin Girod of Mama Rosin created the label Moi J’connais [2], influenced by the great work of other labels like Honest Jon’s [3], Mississippi Records [4] and for sure Voodoo Rhythm Records [5] from Bern. The idea was to release great music that nobody knows or that everybody has forgotten. We also wanted to help musician friends who did not find a record label. It was a new and exiting adventure, and we worked hard for it. Now, two or three months ago we opened our record shop and café Bongo Joe [6]. So the smallest and tiniest music empire of Switzerland is us.

[TB]: A small but important empire, with all these record shops closing. There are not many left: Voodoo Rhythm Records, Chop Records [7] and Oldies Shop [8] in Bern, Plattfon [9] in Basel, RecRec [10], 16tons [11], Jamarico [12] and zerozero [13] in Zurich, Zig Zag Records [14] in Thun, Bro Records [15] and Fresh Cuts [16] in St. Gallen, among others.
[CY]: Yeah, a lot of people asked if we are crazy to open a record store. It’s kind of commercial suicide, they said. But we really insisted. We wanted this place to be a meeting point for everybody and to diversify our activities. I think it’s a great thing.

[TB]: Is it passion only to work with and around music from many angles? Or to which extent is this diversifying a surviving strategy too?
[CY]: That’s a good question. For three years now we just live out of the band – this is our main job and income. But it is a bit stressful. The label and the shop are a new adventure. We will see what is going to happen. We are really motivated and passionate to produce and promote music – that is our only goal. But we are over thirty years old now, and not totally naïve anymore, so we try hard to make this happen, and to be able to pay us in the future. I hope you feel our passion when you enter this place. And I hope you hear it on the releases of our label.

[TB]: Yes, I do. I have to be careful not to spend all my money.

[TB]: What are the labels that we find in your store? It’s a small but fine collection.
[CY]: With Mama Rosin we were touring around the world, and we kept meeting a lot of great people that do great stuff. We met all the people of these labels that we have in our shop personally. It’s crazy how much we agree with their vision of life.

[TB]: Can you tell me about this vision of life?
[CY]: The world is fucked up, and music fills the emptiness. Music is charged spiritually, be it punk or spiritual jazz. Music is important for many people. I don’t really believe people who say they don’t like music. Maybe they are afraid of what music can bring them or something like this. So yeah, digging out forgotten jewels from the past is a great goal. I listen to music done by artists from today too, but everything is linked. You can’t say you are a true creator of something. You have to have an eye on what’s been done before. In the past there has been so many great and fantastic artists and great moments of recording. This you can’t bring back. You can’t reproduce it. So lets spread it again. I like this goal reissuing old stuff, but not in order to being stuck in this. To have an eye on the past and on the future, that’s great. This is where we agree with all the labels we sell here. We do a similar job.

Cyril Yeterian in his record store and café «Bongo Joe» in Geneva

[TB]: Can you explain to our readers who these labels are, and what you like about them?
[CY]: The most important one would be the «Honest Jon’s [3]» label, based in London. In a way, Damon Albarn [18] from Blur has created the label. They released and reissued a lot of important albums, like the calypso music from migrants from Trinidad in London – great and very honest songs about their life in London (Info [19]).

Then, they released field recordings from the early 20th century, and also new bands, reggae, techno, a very eclectic mix. Their shop in Portobello in London is great, and so cheap. When we started with our shop Bongo Joe, we were thinking of Honest Jon’s really. We are still musicians, and when you visit Honest Jon’s, Daman Albarn is never there, but his spirit is everywhere.

[TB]: What are other labels?
[CY]: There is Mississippi Records [20], a fantastic label in Portland, Oregon. I think they’ve done the best job of reissuing unknown or forgotten artists from US. They released so many important artists that have never been listened to. It’s fantastic how Eric from Mississippi Records always finds these great guys. The quality of the music and the spirit of these reissues are great.

[TB]: Portland seems a great place for digging music. You have people like Christopher Kirkley from Sahelsounds [21] (see Norient post here [22]) there, or Nick Barbery from Ghost Capital [23]. Why Portland?
[CY]: Yeah, Portland is sometimes compared to San Francisco. These people don’t come from Portland but they end up there. It seems a cool feeling in the city, and it’s cheap. I was there not so long ago, and I saw a great motto on the wall. They write «Keep Portland weird». But yeah, Eric from Mississippi is a great friend of us. We co-released some records together. We join our efforts.

[TB]: Then there is Voodoo Rhythm Records from Bern. What importance do you think this label has different scenes in Switzerland?
[CY]: Historically I think it is really important. Reverend Beat-Man [24] (see Norient article here [25]) started his label because no label wanted to release his stuff. This is basically how you start your own label. Now Beat Man is famous worldwide, followed by a lot of people everywhere. It’s a strong spirit around him and his label. In every part of the world we played, there was always somebody with a T-shirt of Voodoo Rhythm records and Beat Man around – the logo of the skull with the crown. He released a lot of great rock’n’ roll bands, I think simply the best Swiss bands of the past fifteen years. I know many that dream a little bit to be released by Voodoo Rhythm. So, our first two original albums, we released with them. Voodoo Rhythm Records brought us to where we are now.

[TB]: Now, you have started your own label «Moi j’connais».
[CY]: It is impossible to pronounce.

[TB]: So, is it an insider joke?
[CY]: No, we borrowed an old French expression that – literally translated – would mean, «me, I know». It isn’t about being proud of your knowledge. It’s more like, «me, you can’t trick twice».

[TB]: So, you are the cool guys?
[CY]: We are cool guys.

[TB]: What are the ideas, the philosophy of the label? Is it somewhere between Voodoo Rhythm records and Honest Jon’s?
[CY]: I think there is not so much of from Voodoo Rhythm Records, except the spirit for the music. We go wherever our hearts bring us. For the reissues, there is no specific style. We released everything from blues to Brazilian Tropicalia to Italian folk music. Sometimes you are just blown away by the music that you discover, and this is what we release. It is very personal. We have a lot of different ongoing projects, and we release more and more Swiss bands. At the M4Music festival in Zurich we won an award for best Swiss label. Its strange, because we are such an underground label. They argued that they selected a label that brings identity to the music business. It’s a cool recognition. We work like Voodoo Rhythm Records. Our goal is not to release an artist, make him or her as famous as possible in Switzerland, then Germany, then … Our goal is to spread his or her music everywhere a little. We work with really cool distributors in the US, in Japan, and in other places. So if a Swiss artist has his record on our label, he can be proud to know that there is a Japanese guy that listens to his music and likes it.

[TB]: Can you explain how you work with the example of the latest release of the Geneva based band Imperial Tiger Orchestra (See Norient post here [26]). Maybe first, what draw your attention to this band?
[CY]: First, half of the band members are friends of us. They are great music lovers and great musicians, and we know them for years now. Geneva is a small city or a big town. Everybody knows each. We are fans of the Imperial Tiger Orchestra [27] since their beginning. They release their first two albums with Mental Groove, and the guy from Mental Groove works here as well. Everything is linked. It was a very cool adventure to release the band on Moi J’Connais. It’s the second band that is settled and known that we released so far. We want to work more with bands like this. Because, music business is so fucked up these days that no label wants to release bands that did not prove that they can sell hundreds or thousands of copies. I think we can do a great job for this kind of band. It’s a cool experience, and the album is great. I’m a big fan of Ethiopian jazz, and I think Imperial Tiger Orchestra is one of the best bands of playing this music today. Plus they are not stuck in the 1960s and 70s only. Every record of them is different. They did the 1980s – almost nobody explored this. And their last release goes even further, to dub and electronic music. Its new music and we are proud to release it.

[TB]: Do you have good feedback?
[CY]: Yeah.

[TB]: And are they selling well?
[CY]: Nobody sells today, so we didn’t sell enough yet. But we have time, and the band still plays concerts. As a label, when you release a band, you expect the band to tour and buy some stocks from you. Because with distribution only, I think it is impossible to cover your costs. But let’s see what the future brings. We never paid ourselves for the work we do with the label. I know Beat-Man since years, he is always investing the money he receives for his shows into the label. These days, you can’t become rich with starting a label. We will apply for this label award again this year. You can apply twice. I’d love one day to say that w sold 10’000 copies of one release, but I think we are ten years too late in this world. Maybe it will come back little by little, but I don’t know.

[TB]: What are the next releases you are working on?
[CY]: We have just released the album of a great band called Adieu Gary Cooper. It’s music somewhere between The Velvet Underground and Alain Bashung. It’s all sung in French, great songs, and a great mood. It’s really a cool release. And there is another release by the Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp [28]. It’s a band from Geneva, and they recorded with John Parish. Its something like Konono No. 1 [29] with an experimental touch. Like The Ex [30] meet Konono Number 1. This comes out end of March. Then we have re-issues with Mississippi Records. I’m very proud to have Moi J’Connais and Mississippi Records on one vinyl. Yes, we have a lot of projects. And we have to avoid of burning out, me and Robin. Plus I’m a father. We have too many ideas.