IDOL Insights: meet Bongo Joe

Welcome to IDOL’s monthly interview series featuring one of our label partners. This month, we interviewed Quentin Pilet from the eclectic Bongo Joe label live at the Trans Musicales de Rennes festival.

Bongo Joe Records is a record store based in Geneva, Switzerland, where music transcends borders and time. Founded by musician Cyril Yeterian, Les Disques Bongo Joe label emerged in December 2015 with a mission to shed light on forgotten music. For eight years, Bongo Joe has explored contemporary underground worlds and unveiled gems both local and international. From Altin Gün to Lalalar, from L’Eclair to Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, the discography reflects a love for music in all its diversity.

The 45th edition of the Trans Musicales de Rennes gave carte blanche to this pioneering label with no less than seven groups on the lineup. A fairly representative panel, as it brings together both local Geneva projects, such as Yalla Miku, Citron Citron, Bound by Endogamy, and Sami Galbi, who is Roman-Swiss, and international projects like Nusantara Beat with Indonesian roots, Blanco Teta from Argentina, and Ndox Électrique, blending Europe and West Africa. Meet Quentin Pilet, co-manager of the label.

How did Bongo Joe get started and how did it get where it’s at today?

The label is an extension of the record store founded by Cyril Yeterian in Geneva. His tours with the band Mama Rosin allowed him to make many musical discoveries, inspiring him to open a place. This led to the Bongo Joe store, and two years later, the label.

The label started with local artists and a few reissues of obscure music, evolving through encounters. A turning point for the label was the signing of Altin Gün, which gained prominence after the release of their debut album, On.

The anecdote is interesting: several Altin Gün musicians were touring with Jacco Gardner. When they passed through Geneva, they wanted to visit Bongo Joe, but the store was closing. Upon learning they were passing musicians, Cyril reopened the door. Over a beer, Jasper and Nick Mauskovic explained that they were looking for a label for their new Turkish psychedelic music group.

This encounter allowed us to connect with the Amsterdam scene, like The Mauskovic Dance Band, one of the first major international signings. Later, Booty Carrell, a DJ from Hamburg and a longtime friend of Cyril, mentioned this 18-year-old singer wanting to release her first EP. That’s how Derya Yıldırım was signed.

How did the label's identity develop?

Initially, we wanted to promote the local scene: our first release was Augenwasser, a lo-fi pop artist. Reissues are an inheritance from Cyril’s previous label, Moi J’Connais Records. To complete the DNA, we added international artists from the groovy psychedelic scene.

Eight years later, we have a catalog of 100 releases, with one-third international projects, one-third local projects, and one-third reissues. It’s a label of music enthusiasts: we can go from Argentinean noise punk to Swiss German bedroom pop to a reissue project of music from Sao Tomé and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea.

Our label reflects Geneva, a small city with a dense scene: you can go from a dub night to a punk concert in less than 5 minutes. In Geneva, 70% of the population has dual nationality, leading to a rich diaspora. All these different sounds influence our listening habits and the scene in general.

How do you find a balance between releases and reissues?

When we release a reissue, it’s music known and shared within communities. We released an anthology of Africa Negra, the main group from the island of Sao Tomé and Principe. Or when we reissued Maguidala, we didn’t discover anything – the singer Pedro Lima was given national funerals! As the groups didn’t tour much, we highlight their work.

But we also want to support our local scene: we know there are groups, artists, and producers who deserve recognition. And we know that the identity of Bongo Joe, its touch, can help certain groups—whether local or international—shine.

What are your main goals and challenges in developing your projects?

Bongo Joe is a small team, yet we release a minimum of twelve albums and up to 20 projects per year, which is quite significant. As an independent label, the main challenge is to succeed in defending an image, a line, an identity. Our DNA is recognized, as evidenced by the carte blanche from Trans Musicales. It’s a consecration!

This search for credibility requires being uncompromising and not taking the easy route. We have even refused to release albums simply because we don’t like the music or it represents an identity we don’t want to defend.

Daily work involves defending our independence, identity, and choices. We are also fortunate to be surrounded by public relations professionals like Marc Chonier, with whom we have been working for years. You have to believe in the project and knock on the door until it works.

What are your main strengths (as an independent label)?

Our strength lies in our connections. The label is well-established, and the record store also serves as a concert venue, attracting many artists. We even organize a festival that can host larger projects. Cyril tours with his band, and personally, I manage artists, this allows us to meet people at concerts. So we are very connected, with the ability to release projects that resonate with us.

We’ve worked with artists for a long time, and they have become friends. We defend this family spirit: groups meet, synergies are created. Everyone shares this mindset of DIY exploration.

Les Disques Bongo Joe means a thirst for discovery and a connection to the world. You have to be attentive to what’s happening and be attentive to the world. That’s why we have a sub-label, Les Disques Magnétiques, dedicated to electronic music from Geneva and its surroundings. The idea is to bet on local talents, often first albums or EPs, with no ambition to export.

Why do you think Independence is a strength?

We come from a culturally and politically engaged music scene. We come from squats, from the punk scene, which influences what we do every day. When you have few financial resources and have to fight in a world where it matters, if you don’t stay true to your values, you are left with nothing. Even though we are now more established and “institutional,” independence is still there; we claim it, not just through our name.

The label’s name comes from George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, a black Texan musician who did proto-rap/spoken word. He had offers to play in bands but had no drums to accompany them, so he built drums with barrels and started playing in the street. When the store was founded, Cyril wanted to pay tribute to this musician and his DIY spirit, somewhat punk and resolutely avant-garde.

We contacted his family, and they were amazed at this testimony of respect. They are very happy to know that his name remains a symbol of independence for a generation of musicians.

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