Dagoretti Records Reveres Music as Universal Language

. July 14, 2020.
Photo Credit: Lisa Gavan

“I think what is called ‘world music’ is mostly garbage,” reports Dr. Peter Larson, head of Dagoretti Records and an Ann Arbor-based musician, songwriter, and producer. Larson founded Dagoretti Records in 2017 to release music recorded by Kenyan musicians like Grandmaster Masese and Makadem, whom he had aligned with during his time spent living and working in Nairobi. 

The local label has since expanded to include works by free jazz groups like Heart of the Ghost from DC, and expansive avant-garde pieces by Arrington de Dionsyo (recorded in Olympia, WA). The music distributed by Dagoretti can predominantly be misinterpreted as ‘world music,’ since you rarely encounter Western mainstream instruments like guitars or pianos.

“‘World music’ was a term created by Peter Gabriel in the 1980s,” said Larson, “as a way to market their version of international music to white people in Europe. People call my band, for example, ‘world music,’ but no…, no, that’s not what this is: this is a rock band! Just like any other rock band, and when you think of rock bands — rock music came from Africa; it’s an African tradition. If you go to the roots of the music, it’s no different than anything you would see in the Delta, or where I grew up down in Mississippi. It’s all the same; one culture that spans the world.”

Larson is an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research, and he spent three years living in Nairobi working on public health issues. “When I got there, I immediately went to see live music — you’ve got to do that, otherwise you’re just completely missing out. All these bands, all these different kinds of musicians, an overwhelming variety of amazing musicians; it wasn’t long before I figured out that I could find people to teach me how to play this kind of music, and that I could form a band in Nairobi and play live.”

For Larson, he describes the period leading up to 2014 as a rough patch of his life — with the move to Nairobi and the collaborators and acquaintances he made while he was there served as a substantive rejuvenation, and not just creatively speaking. He looks back on it as somewhat of a restart, even if it was essentially drawing upon his natural instincts. All he’s ever wanted to do with his life is make music. But he’s no stranger to distributing music, either.

He spent the 90s as a guitarist for several rock/noise groups, but throughout the 2000s, he ran Bulb Records, which released debuts for artists like Andrew W.K. and Wolf Eyes. In 2017, Larson said he started up Dagoretti on a bit of a whim. “Dagoretti” was the neighborhood of Nairobi he lived in and is the Swahili-fied pronunciation of “the great…” Larson said that once they had a name, or a brand, that was enough impetus to start releasing records and “convince people that this is a real thing.” Their first release, with a bit of prankstery subversion, was numbered as their “12th” release… But, Larson said, people soon accepted and even embraced this label as a very “real thing…” and it started building from there.

A self-titled album by Dr. Pete Larson and his Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band was released about one month ago, and the label’s actual releases are just about to pass 50. The inspiration for Larson’s band’s name comes from the primary instrument, which he plays: an 8-stringed plucked bowl-shaped lyre from Kenya. Which brings us back to ‘world music…’

“Obviously I play this African instrument, and studied under one of the masters of nyatiti, Oduor Nyagweno, but there are lyre traditions throughout the Middle East, Greece, up through Europe, to Scandinavia. They’re all similar in their own ways. It transcends ideas of country, region, or place; it’s a universal language. Calling it ‘world music’ sets up this false dichotomy between what’s over there and what’s here.

Much of the music released by Dagoretti is characteristically heavy on vibe. Energies, auras, sounds, ambiance, trances… And Larson said that, just like so many other musicians, he is sincerely missing and even grieving over the uncertainty of how and when music can return. Encouragingly, the label has been incredibly busy over the last few months. Larson reported that they’re doing more business in the time of the quarantine than in the first two years of operation combined.

“Right now,” said Larson. “I think what’s going on is that music, music makers, and music scenes are creating a sense of belonging for people that’s really necessary right now. It’s not to say that it doesn’t happen in normal times either, but music scenes are about people finding a space where they’re accepted and can find friends and express themselves. That’s what punk scenes were always about. And I feel there’s no difference between punk scenes or jazz scenes or African music, it’s all the same. It comes down to trying to support something, and wanting to belong to something, and feeling a part of what’s going on… My view is that that is what’s essential right now.”To see what Dagoretti Records is working on, check out their bandcamp.

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