June 1, 2016
By Ken Waxman
Organic” and “street-wise” are two words that sum up the appeal of the el NEGOCITO (eNR) record label based in Ghent. Belgium’s “Our label is run as from a collective of musicians by somebody that isn’t a musician,” explains Rogé Verstraete, describing himself as eNR’s “instigator” who prefers to be known by his first name. The label’s street-wise reputation is because it mostly documents the work of a couple of generations of local musicians in Belgium’s third largest city. The label is organic as well because it’s one part of Rogé’s activities that includes concert and festival promotion.
The label started and grew organically as well. A little more than a decade ago Rogé, who had spent a year traveling around South America, decided to open a Chilean restaurant called el NEGOCITO. In Spanish, El Negocito means “little corner store with the understanding that some negotiation is possible”, explains Rogé. Soon he “decided to put a touch of myself into it.” That touch involved live concerts which quickly multiplied from a few every month to around 150 a year. “El NEGOCITO became a place where improvisation and jazz was heard daily even though it was pretty much a Latino bar where quite a few regulars had to endure the sometimes experimental music,” he recalls.
Rogé first gave carte blanche to local musicians like trumpeter Bart Maris, drummer Giovanni Barcella and tenor saxophonist Jeroen Van Herzeele, but the space soon attracted international guest like Marshal Allan and Jean Luc Cappozzo. With Rogé friendly with musicians from nearby Holland, the cafe also became a regular part of their circuit. “It was music that had to be heard,” Rogé insists.
Eventually, hearing it involved starting the record label in 2009. With Barcella and Van Herzeele playing the café weekly, Monday Sessions Live at El Negocito bcame eNR 001. Other discs followed quickly. “We used to perform a lot in the el NEGOCITO bar and later in the bar La Resistenza,” remembers Maris, who is featured on five eNR releases. “So when Rogé started to focus on records, we were first in line to come up with material. Rogé would hear the music being played live in the bar and judge on that to give it ‘a go’ for recording. He even invested in high-end equipment for our recording sessions. He’s the one dealing with money, so he finds the budgets needed for the production and releases it, a miracle these days of restrictions in many cultural domains.”
Confirms Rogé: “It didn’t feel like a label in the beginning but more as an appreciation for music by interesting musicians.” Sessions moved to La Resistenza, a larger club, for another three years until the landlord sold the building. Live at La Resistenza by Dikeman/Parker/Drake is a souvenir of the final concert. Nowadays, as Citadelic, Rogé hosts monthly concerts at contemporary arts museum S.M.A.K., and organizes a summer festival in the city’s Citadel Park. By now the café is on a firm financial footing, with Rogé mostly overseeing such tasks as preparation, book keeping and promotion. “The café has maybe 10 concerts a year at least,” he states. “But that’s nothing in comparison with the early years. Today I almost do two full-time jobs, with maybe a bit more time put into music.”
Meanwhile eNR has become a full-fledged label. Elaborates Rogé: “To decide what the label puts out there are two thought patterns: 1) the musician closely involved get full artistic freedom. We make a strategy together and decide what path is the most effective or efficient for the project 2) other music is heard by what I call the circle of ‘wise men’ who tell me what they think. Because I’m funding the operation, I make the end decision taking in cost, artistic validity, exposure, relevance for the label etc. I look at an idea and try to make it happen with a lot of patience as my partner.”
Pianist Seppe Gebruers, who has been featured on three eNR disc, with three in the works, had self-released his first CD with the Ifa y xango band and helped form Troika, a musicians’ collective when he moved from Antwerp to Ghent. “I met Rogé, played in his clubs and got closer to him after I moved. He became interested in the piano duo with Erik Vermeulen and opened the door for me to be part of the label with Antiduo. I can bring out upcoming projects on eNR, and more importantly, we talk about the label, concerts and strategy for our collective to make music as accessible as possible. Rogé is sufficiently realistic to see that a CD label is not financially very viable. He’s just looking for ways to present this music, based on improvisation, to the largest possible audience.
That means that as well as exposing Belgian musicians, more outsiders are recording for eNR. “All circumstances are possible,” Rogé relates. “We invited Charles Gayle to our festival a few years ago because I believed he would be a great to perform with Barcella. Now they’ve already toured, and will release an album before summer. Other musicians send a mail when they have a project. For example Feecho [Kaja Draksler and Onno Govaert] were touring and asked if I wanted to bring out something for the tour. In the end, time became too short, so we released the concert in La Resistenza because it was a good one. Naked Wolf was the first band I had no relationship with except that [Amsterdam drummer] Gerri [Jäger] played at my festival. Naked Wolf was a hard nut to crack even though the group came highly recommended. So I took it mostly with the vision of seeing what this would mean for the label. We just brought out a duo with Yedo Gibson of Naked Wolf, so the story continues.”
Notes Gebruers: “All my projects were established organically. Ifa y xango started as a bunch of friends jamming in the garage. Antiduo arose from improvisation sessions at piano lessons, and Bambi Pang Pang featuring Andrew Cyrille was recorded after a concert at Jazz Middelheim where Ifa y Xango got carte blanche and invited Cyrille. Rogé and I brainstorm a lot about what the label could be and also about my personal steps. He gives me his opinion about how I could better take care of my musical career without making artistic compromises.”
Right now, Rogé is eNR’s only employee. “Subsidy-wise our organization is too organic to get proper funding,” he reveals. “We’re perceived as a guerrilla music movement. Plus if you want to write [grant applications] you need somebody to do that and there’s no possibility to pay somebody else a proper wage.” Referring to the Ancient Roman patron, he jokes “I always say I’m a Mecenas without any money. The café works well, so eNR and Citadelic surf on that wave.” That wave will surge in the next while with additional CDs. Among the eNR projects to be released in 2016 are a disc featuring five double bass players called Basssss; a trumpet-piano duo with Maris, and a double CD celebrating the 80th birthday of free jazz pioneer Paul Van Gysegem.
Says Maris: “My biggest motivation to work with Rogé is his vision of the Ghent community of alternative and young improvisers; he creates opportunities for them to meet the established players, and this really makes young musicians believe in what they’re doing and to look for their own voices. For most other labels the work we produce is too alternative.”
Because of his organic business plan and links to ever-changing street-wise music, Rogé feels the musical situation will only get better in the future. “Time is on our side, like a steam train getting nearer and nearer.”
—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2016