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Diggers, adventurers into almost lost sounds

As their name sug­gests, “dig­gers” are like miners. Plun­ging deep into the bowels of music, they unearth nug­gets to share with the world. We meet some of those who pan for gold in the music of yes­te­ryear for a bet­ter unders­tan­ding of how they work and to get to the bot­tom of most recent developments. 

For a long time “dig­ging” was the pre­serve of col­lec­tors who tried to pre­serve musi­cal heri­tage buried deep on ante­di­lu­vian disks of black wax. At the dawn of club culture, “dig­ger” became a sort of badge of honour, self-pro­clai­med by DJs who knew how to exhume and re-cut gems of sound for the dan­ce­floor. But the rights of artists and pro­du­cers were not always res­pec­ted ; pas­sion for a par­ti­cu­lar title some­times took pre­ce­dence over the rights of their crea­tors and pro­du­cers. Today, with the world just a click away, “dig­gers” have become like archaeo­lo­gists 3.0, nee­ding to com­bine their love of a groove with exper­tise in eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gy and music law.

Ear and flair

Deni Shain, whose name has been atta­ched to the com­pi­la­tions Space Echo and Bito­ri (Cape Verde), Pop Makos­sa (Came­roon) and, since 2018, to his label Atan­ga­na Records, has been dig­ging for a decade. “I star­ted in Por­tu­gal,” he says. “I had a resi­den­cy at Music­box, a club in Lis­bon. When I came out at 6 am, I’d rush over to the Fei­ra da Ladra, the local flea mar­ket, where Cape Ver­deans and Hai­tians were sel­ling their fami­ly 45s” he remem­bers. “That’s how you build your col­lec­tion, your sound fin­ger­print”. His love of music and mee­ting new people did the rest. “It’s a real job,” he conti­nues : “You have to have an ear and flair because you need to find good titles then track down the right­shol­ders. If you want to turn them into a com­pi­la­tion to sell, you have to find the pro­du­cers as well as the artists”. In the age of the inter­net, this trea­sure hunt might seem sim­pler, but, as far as he’s concer­ned, nothing beats “being out there on the ground, word of mouth or even luck”.

Some­times the right­shol­ders them­selves call upon the exper­tise of these archi­vists. Based in Pointe-à-Pitre (Gua­de­loupe) since 2019, Deni Shain is digi­ti­sing the cata­logue of the legen­da­ry Gua­de­lou­pean pro­du­cer, sin­ger and song­wri­ter Hen­ri Debs, who died seven years ago. “His son Ryko res­to­red his stu­dio and wan­ted to archive his father’s recor­dings (400 albums and 300 45s),” the DJ tells us. “The notion of heri­tage is impor­tant here. Being sur­roun­ded by all these records is a real treat for a dig­ger”. As a good acti­vist, this DJ – who now works as a duo along­side DJ After as part of the Kal­Bass Sound-Sys­tem – is plan­ning an audio-visual coun­ter­part, a series of docu­men­ta­ries and audio-books to expand his res­to­ra­tion work, and the next release from his label, Mizik La Ka Dan­sé, is a com­pi­la­tion of biguine-latin rhythms from the Debs catalogue.

Mizik La Ka Dansé


The India­na Jones of music

But how many titles are sit­ting on a shelf, just wai­ting for someone to trace back their rights genea­lo­gy so they can be “clea­red” for use ? There’s no shor­tage of sto­ries on the sub­ject. Page after page could be writ­ten about res­pect­ful dig­gers, artists and pro­du­cers chea­ted by uns­cru­pu­lous “fans”, and fun­ny anec­dotes, “even if the sums at stake are rare­ly huge,” as Étienne Tron points out. The DJ, pro­du­cer and mana­ger of the Secousse label makes it clear that the rights of crea­tors and pro­du­cers are bet­ter taken into account now than in the past : “As the inter­net glo­ba­lises even the smal­lest release in an ins­tant, you can’t do wha­te­ver you like any more. Eve­ryone knows about eve­ry­thing now. Labels like Sound­way and Honest Jon’s have also hel­ped raise the bar in terms of content and res­pec­ting people’s rights, as well as sound qua­li­ty, which has had a posi­tive impact on the small dig­ger com­mu­ni­ty”.

Neba Solo. Hymne de la CAN 2002


He admits spen­ding seve­ral thou­sand euros on digi­ti­sing, mas­te­ring and lac­que­ring for each release, the three steps to ensu­ring maxi­mum sound repro­duc­tion. “It’s an invest­ment that can’t be reco­ve­red in six months. For­tu­na­te­ly, our releases are sold over much lon­ger per­iods,” he adds, men­tio­ning two of his best­sel­lers that are conti­nuing to sell : the reis­sue of the maxi Pro­prié­té Pri­vée by the Congo­lese Sam­my Mas­sam­ba and the anthem writ­ten by the Malian bala­fo­nist Neba Solo for the 2002 Afri­can Cup of Nations.

At the begin­ning of the sum­mer, Étienne Tron relea­sed Ndu­zan­gou, a track writ­ten in 2015 by the Como­rian sin­ger Zaza. “She’s an artist who pro­vides the sound­track to wed­dings along­side Zile, a musi­cian and pro­du­cer. I dis­co­ve­red her through her videos, some of which have had more than a mil­lion and a half views. When I wan­ted to get in touch with her, I tried eve­ryw­here in the Como­ros, before fin­ding her in Île-de-France through a contact,” he says.

Zaza – Ndu­zan­gou



Orient Reso­nance (L’Orient Sonore)


From Bei­rut, Kamal Kas­sar, a “lawyer, music lover and musi­cian”, as he des­cribes him­self, tries to revive “for­got­ten clas­sics”. While he unders­tands the term “dig­ger”, he thinks his own work – star­ted in 2009 by the AMAR Foun­da­tion, dedi­ca­ted to Archi­ving and Resear­ching Arab Music – is dif­ferent, more com­pre­hen­sive : “This music, which had its hey­day bet­ween 1850 and 1930, must not disap­pear. We publish one or two box sets a year (Dist. L’Autre Dis­tri­bu­tion), accom­pa­nied by well-docu­men­ted book­lets, and broad­cast seve­ral pod­casts in Ara­bic, trans­cri­bed into English via our web­site. We also sup­port young groups inter­es­ted in this music, which we record and broad­cast,” explains the man who is also the cura­tor of the “L’Orient Sonore” [Orient Reso­nance] exhi­bi­tion at the MuCEM in Mar­seille until 4 Janua­ry. Along­side the six­ty or so 78s from the foundation’s col­lec­tion, audio-visual recor­dings of a dozen Eas­tern oral musi­cal tra­di­tions threa­te­ned with extinc­tion are pre­sen­ted in the form of giant installations.


Some web­site to adven­ture your­self in the dig­gers’ world :









© pho­to : Les Mains Noires 



Baba Squaaly


Journaliste musical depuis des décennies, Baba Squaaly a collaboré à L’Affiche, Mondomix, RFIMusique.com, Musique Info Hebdo et à de nombreuses autres parutions.

Correspondant marseillais de Radio Nova depuis l’ouverture de fréquence en 2006, il griffe depuis le premier confinement la matinale de la radio parisienne de son “Baba Squaaly se confie sans haine”, qui selon l’inspi’ zigzague entre édito poétique et harangue engagée. Programmateur du festival parisien semestriel Trois 6 Neuf au Théâtre de l’Atalante et parrain officiel du Nomad Café à Marseille, il est aussi Big Buddha, DJ spécialisé “musiques du monde”, qu’elles soient traditionnelles, actuelles ou futuristes.

Il est un des membres fondateurs de Goldenberg & Schmuyle. Ce big band du monde à trois comme aiment à se qualifier ces passionnés de sons et d’images de tous les recoins de la planète ont publié un album en 2013, simplement baptisé “&”(A Son Rythme/Rue Stendhal), sélection FIP à sa sortie.

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