Renowned Ocora recordist talks to Hisham Mayet about his extensive work in West Africa, South East Asia and beyond
Two giants of field recording and global music come together in a new Sublime Frequencies book, The Photographs Of Charles Duvelle: Disques Ocora And Collection Prophet. Duvelle is a composer, recordist and photographer who ran (and undertook numerous expeditions for) the famous French label Ocora, which evolved out of the Radiodiffusion De La France D’Outre-Mer, a colonial broadcasting project begun by Pierre Schaeffer in the mid-1950s.
"I discovered a lot of tapes," Duvelle recalls in the book of his first encounter with the RFOM archive in the late 1950s. "Music, too. Very badly recorded, but to me completely new and full of originality. This was real modern music! This was my real discovery of the world’s contemporary music, and not only that of the Western world."
Duvelle began recording music outside of Europe on a trip to Niger in the early 60s. Though he was accustomed to recording classical and jazz music, he had to quickly learn how to best record African musicians. He found ingenious ways to document performances and social gatherings, such as setting up sessions outside in places sheltered from the wind, and moving the microphone around during the recording, almost acting as a performer himself.
His early work coincided with that of the French ethnographic film maker Jean Rouch, who likewise prioritised mobility and flexibility over preparation and staging in his documentaries. Duvelle's recording work – a two minute excerpt of West African percussion – was even included by Carl Sagan on the famous Voyager Golden Record.
Ocora's catalogue today runs to more than 600 recordings, scores of them made by Duvelle in his 15 year tenure at the label, and it has become renowned for its quality sound and scholarly dedication to presenting music from beyond Europe. After leaving Ocora, Duvelle has recorded his own music extensively, and later worked on the Prophet series for Philips, which once again extensively documented African music.
Duvelle also took extensive photographs during his expeditions, which form the basis of this new book. It includes more than 200 photos of musicians and people from West Africa to South East Asia and the Pacific from the late 50s to the late 70s, and it's accompanied by two CDs of recordings taken from the many discs he made.
The set includes an extensive interview with Duvelle conducted by Hisham Mayet, who has recorded and compiled numerous groundbreaking albums for the US 'punk ethnography' label Sublime Frequencies. The interview discusses the colonial context of Ocora's work, which propogated the idea of 'co-operation', but which also aimed to bolster the idea of a unified French culture for the new Francophone African audience, as well as the myriad problems of the term 'ethnographic'. The book also includes extensive discographies and recording notes and musician credits.
The Photographs Of Charles Duvelle: Disques Ocora And Collection Prophet is published by Sublime Frequencies.