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Music

In praise of re-issues, the musical goldmines which never run dry

Be thankful for the record labels shining a new light on buried musical treasure, says Anne Frankenstein

Had he been better know, George Alexander Aberle – later known as eden ahbez (he chose to spell his alias with lowercase letters) – could have been credited as an originator of the hippie movement. Back in the 1940s ahbez and his followers (who called themselves nature boys) wore their hair long, slept outdoors and lived on nuts, seeds and their own crops of organic vegetables. Ahbez was a prolific songwriter, finding inspiration in the natural world, and despite choosing to live on the fringes of conventional society he managed to write several hit records – most notably Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, the tune for which ahbez claimed to have received directly “from the mist of the California mountains”. 

I only know all of this because a record label called Munster, one of many which specialise in reissuing older music, led me to ahbez’s beautiful, breezy and distinctly peculiar 1960 solo LP Eden’s Island a few years ago. The original release, had I discovered it somehow by chance, would have cost me hundreds if not thousands of pounds.  

Perhaps you have an original copy of Eden’s Island in your collection that you’re planning to retire on. For me, and many curious music lovers like me, reissue labels such as Munster act as musical mariners, expanding our sonic horizons and diminishing the financially prohibitive aspect of collecting records. Some of the UK’s most famous labels which share this vocation – Mr Bongo, Soul Jazz and Strut, for example – have been opening ears for decades to musical treasure that was otherwise lost in the ether.  

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Soundway Records works in a similar spirit, focusing primarily on Latin, African and Asian music, and it has not only created many illuminating compilations but it has also made most of its releases accessible via Spotify in one giant glorious playlist. Obscure Ghanaian proto hip-hop, Panamanian tropical funk or sizzling Mexican cumbia, formerly locked away in archives to gather dust, can now be jumped between at the literal touch of a button.  

Ace, another specialist UK-based reissue label, has centred its attention on rock ’n’ roll, soul and rhythm and blues since the 1970s, capitalising on the prolific output of the Tin Pan Alley era and beyond. There are enormous vaults filled with unreleased or undiscovered music to which Ace has kindly provided us with the keys. It has given thousands of albums a second chance to be heard and I’ve never encountered a dud among them. 

Another label that can’t seem to put a foot wrong is We Want Sounds, based in Paris and London. Its reissue roster has included rare LPs by Don Cherry, Serge Gainsbourg and Buddy Terry, albums I’d always hoped to spot at a car boot sale in between Engelbert Humperdinck and the best of Demis Roussos. We Want Sounds has also introduced me to some artists who were hiding in plain sight – such as Billy Brooks, whose album Windows of the Mind was heavily sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, and Sweet Stuff by Sylvia Robinson, co-founder of Sugar Hill Records and producer of arguably hip-hop’s first ever commercial hit, Rapper’s Delight.  

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Founded by a group of DJs and record collectors, We Want Sounds’ principal aim is to shine a spotlight on albums that would otherwise have, in their words, gone into oblivion. An example they use is their recent reissue of Robert Cotter’s Missing You, featuring a young Nile Rodgers. “This is basically the first Chic recording,” they told me. “But because the album was released by a tax scam label at the time, it virtually disappeared without trace.” Missing You is a great record and a part of pop history which has only been preserved thanks to the intervention of We Want Sounds. 

Another discovery I cherish is the music of pianist and composer David Durrah via a tiny East London-based label called Clap City. It creates limited runs of seven-inch records, packaged lovingly with detailed booklets and specially designed sleeves. Durrah performed with everyone from Cab Calloway to Tito Puente, but his profile has remained relatively low. Clap City reissued his mind-bending psychedelic spiritual jazz track Venus Fly Trap at the end of last year – apparently Durrah was initially reluctant about the idea, having been offered unfair deals by labels in the past, but Clap City’s priority was bringing more attention to his music. It duly did so, and the fact that he died this summer knowing the release had brought pleasure to a new raft of fans is a credit to both him and the label. 

Last week, while back home in Dublin for a few days, I came across another copy of Eden’s Island in the Secret Book and Record Store. I bought it to give to a friend who I knew would love it like I do. And so the legend of eden ahbez, the original nature boy, lives on. 

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