December 5, 2011
By Ken Waxman
Nearly 40 years after it released its first disc – and after pressing about 40 LPs and 30 CDs – London-based Ogun Records is still chugging along, with managing director Hazel Miller maintaining it as a one-woman show. Strongly identified with the South African musicians who fled Apartheid for the United Kingdom during the 1960s as well as with the British innovators affiliated with them, Ogun puts out three to four CDs annually. The discs are a mixture of CD transfers of important LPs; newly recorded discs; plus never-before-released historical sessions.
Necessity was the mother of Ogun’s invention in 1974, initially by Miller and her then-husband, the late bassist Harry Miller (1941-1983). Born in Cape Town, Miller played with many bands in England, including Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) big band, whose Live at Willisau became the fledging label’s first release. “Global record companies started to show a disinterest in European contemporary jazz and improvised music in the mid-1970s,” recalls pianist Keith Tippett. “So Ogun stepped forward to document and record the South Africans exiled in London and English musicians who were working together in ensembles too numerous to mention.”
Involved in many facets of the music scene, British-born Miller was managing BOB at the time, and “that’s how the tapes were offered to kick-start the label,” she recalls. “Chris [McGregor (1936-1990)] was keen for the success of Ogun and totally supportive.” Survival played a part too, since musicians needed records to promote their work. Dick Hodge, a friend and professor of African history, helped cover the initial costs, and organized a share portfolio to finance Ogun. Hodge also came up with the label name which is that of the Yoruba God of work and iron, while another friend created its distinct anthropomorphic logo. Hodge departed soon afterwards and since that time, courtesy of record sales, plus what Miller terms “an understanding bank manager”, Ogun has flourished.
Harry Miller’s role had been artistic director, which as Hazel Miller recalls often involved carrying “1,000 LPs up three flights of stairs to our home,” while she organized all administrative aspects of the label, as well as booking gigs, setting up concerts and doing promotion work for many of the affiliated groups. Although she and Miller subsequently split up, and he later died in an auto accident, Ogun’s course had been set.
“I often set up gigs which we then recorded,” Miller recalls of the label’s beginnings, leading to memorable discs such as saxophonist Mike Osborne trio’s Border Crossing – now half of the CD Trio & Quintet – and Ovary Lodge featuring Tippett/Harry Miller, vocalist Julie Tippetts and percussionist Frank Perry. Most early records were engineered by Keith Beal. Today, Miller says “I use recordings made at the time of the concert by BBC, studios sessions or recordings by individuals.”
Although most of the players recorded were in the South African-British Free Music axis, a few continental Europeans are represented as well. “The non-South African-releases resulted from being approached by those musicians and if there wasn’t anything in the pipeline and it fitted into our catalogue we produced them,” explains Miller “We were also pleased to add different music to the catalogue, because in many cases it was from musicians we knew and liked.”
Ogun’s meticulous accounting system hasn’t changed from years past either, she continues. “Each project is costed and the budget discussed and agreed upon with those involved.” With file copies of all the Ogun LPs still on hand Miller reports that “transition to CD wasn’t a problem … and they take up less room which is a bonus”. Although Ogun was semi-dormant for a time during the 1980s to prepare for the format change, Elton Dean’s The Bologna Tape, McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and Moholo’s Blue Notes for Johnny – part of the five-CD box set The Ogun Collection – and Moholo-Moholo’s Viva-la-Black appeared during the time. A substantial order from Disk Union, Ogun’s Japanese distributor for CD copies of Tippett’s big band Ark session and Soft Head’s Rogue Element, featuring saxophonist Elton Dean and bass guitarist High Hopper, “funded us nicely forward” and helped ease the transition to CD, she adds. “Digitalization is obviously a path to wander down in the future,” Miller notes, “but only the released CDs of archive material have been done so far.”
Over the years, Rogue Element and Ark have remained some of Ogun’s best-selling discs along with Dean’s Ninesense Happy daze/Oh! for the edge on CD, plus different CDs by Moholo-Moholo. Steady sellers on both LP and CD formats are sessions by BOB and the original South African combo, the Blue Notes, plus the Blue Notes’ The Ogun Collection.
“All over the world people can hear our heart’s vibrations because of Ogun”, exults Moholo-Moholo, who was featured on Live at Willisau in 1974 and continues to record for the label today. “We are so rich musically because Ogun stepped in to record us when times were tough. It’s still spreading the music to places where other recording companies did not.”
As with most small labels, distribution remains a problem, with gaps as local companies go in-and-out of business. Right now, notes Miller: “Ogun is distributed through Harmonia Mundi in the UK, Orkestra in France, Distrijazz in Spain and Portugal, IRD in Italy, Music by Mail in Denmark, No Man’s Land in Berlin, and Wayside Music, Downtown Music Gallery, Dusty Groove and Squidco in the U.S.
“And” she adds proudly, “at last I have a distributor in South Africa: Pretoria’s Mabitsela Music & Events.”
“For 37 years Hazel Miller has tirelessly worked to make possible the documentation of this passionate music,” notes Julie Tippets. “So today it’s here for everyone to hear”.
Continuing to issue new CDs means that even with its long history Ogun remains much more than a reissue label, insists Miller. Plus, like the recent Spiritual Knowledge and Grace capturing a nightclub gig of Moholo-Moholo, Pukwana and Dyani with American saxophonist Frank Wright, some future scheduled CDs consist of material recorded in the past, but never released. There’s another disc from the Blue Note’s sojourn in Holland, without Wright, but with McGregor for instance, plus a multi-disc McGregor project, the size or scope of which has to be decided. Among the new issues will be Moholo-Moholo’s concert at the 2010 London Jazz Festival
“Whilst there are still fans out there we shall continue to release archive music and new recordings,” says Miller with finality.
—For New York City Jazz Record December 2011