Darek Mazzone answers questions for this interview from Istanbul, Turkey. The intrepid host of KEXP's long-running global music show, Wo'Pop, is scouting musicians in that cosmopolitan country for possible inclusion in his Seattle Sacred Music & Art concert series (SAMA, henceforth). The Polish immigrant and veteran DJ/filmmaker/producer is also on a mission to find artists for his new label, Old Age Recording Co., which he runs with Banya 5 founder John Goodfellow. Mazzone calls his partner an awesome collaborator who shares his obsession with building community. They've known each other for over 20 years, and both men live to urge people to explore other places, even in their own neighborhoods.
Mazzone's on this monthlong fact-finding trip to bolster the rosters of both Old Age and SAMA—and, ultimately, to make the world a more enjoyable and, ideally, empathetic and equitable place. While in Istanbul, he's researching dervishes and Sufi musicians for his label, an extension of a project that began in Morocco. So far, he's talked to Doublemoon Records/Babylon club boss Ahmet Ulug and Mercan Dede about dervish history and also chatted with Gaye Su Akyol, standard bearer for a new generation of Turkish musicians reviving and reinterpreting traditions.
“Being [in Istanbul] is intriguing, because it's gigantic,” Mazzone says. “The city's 20 million people [fact-check: latest census figures put it at 15.8 million], but [Americans] know so little about it. If we didn't colonize it, enslave it, or have some kind of relationship with it, it just falls off the radar. This is one of the reasons why I started the label: I feel that there's so much stuff that, we get the music, because [almost] everything's available on Spotify now. But the context is so hard for people to grasp. This is something I've learned from being at KEXP for 30 years. It's about getting people to dig a little deeper, guiding them.”
Old Age's first releases will be by veteran “gypsy punk” band Kultur Shock and their offshoot project, Do-Goodrs, both Seattle-based groups. The former's Acoustic Live album came out on October 6 and it captures the band—who include revered multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Amy Denio—at their raucous and uplifting best.
Do-Goodrs will have singles coming out in the near future. Mazzone elaborates. “They're an interesting project... [Leader] Gino Yevdjevich was about to become a superstar in Yugoslavia. If you look at his band Gino Banana, it's like the Justin Timberlake of Yugoslavia. It was going to be huge, and then the war struck, and suddenly he's a refugee living in Seattle. Okay, let's explore this.
“Hadjia (formerly Nedim Hadžihamzić), the bass player in Gino Banana, was also a refugee. I became interested in their story, as a refugee myself. My friend John Goodfellow has been writing songs left and right and we're like, let's put these songs together and do it in a form that I really care about, which is Balkan music. Amy Denio, who is one of my favorite multi-instrumentalists/singers of all time, and I've been a DJ forever, so I threw in some percussion and we went to Avast! Recording Co. to do some recording and it worked!
“The last band I was in was Strongmen and that was during the time of the speakeasy. I'm at a point in my life where, if not now... Let's experiment.”
Inspired by fantastic archival labels such as Sublime Frequencies and Dust-to-Digital, Mazzone called his company Old Age Recording “because we wanted to start looking at some of these artists and even releases who haven't seen the light of day. It's like, you're amazing—let's find a way to put you out through these channels, because I know that there's an audience for you.”
After fostering an appreciation for recorded and live global music for many decades, Mazzone feels that he's honed his chops in this field and can offer novel music and experiences. “I'm seeing and hearing a whole generation creating music now that's tied to their traditions. There was a period of time where they were just emulating what was coming out of the West and they didn't really care about the music of their parents. Either it was tied to a difficult time in their history, like in Lisbon; fado was tied to the fascist regime. So, nobody wanted to hear that anymore. The next generation came up, rediscovered it, and made it their own. And that story isn't being told. It gets lost in all the other things that are going on. It gets lost because the Western cultural machine is so gigantic; it's really hard to go up against Beyoncé or Rihanna or hip-hop in general.
“I feel that I can actually tell the story and create offerings. The label is obviously digital but it's also the social media around it, creating content that could be really interesting, that could lend more of a storytelling aspect to it. I felt that there was a need and a new scene that was coming up. That scene was tied to a rediscovery of tradition, but a way to interpret that tradition that speaks true to the history of the generation that is working with it right now.
“I'm seeing that in the context of Turkey. The reason why all this Anatolian resurgence is happening is that this generation has rediscovered this stuff. There were times when it was suppressed. Now, there's an interesting opportunity for it to bubble up.
“The other part is that I'm an immigrant; I'm seeing immigrants from all over the world take this work and recreate it and put it out filtered through their experiences of living in other countries. There's a bit of a post-post-colonialism to it, which I find really intriguing.
“The third part is, the industry is so dramatically different right now. The fact that I've been doing it so long, I have a context of it. You and I remember records stores. Now I'm trying to explain to people why the term 'world music' came about and how important it was, because you needed inventory, you needed real estate to put this stuff in.
“It's important to tell the story of how this stuff works, how it lands, and be intelligent about it. I want people to be curious. I want to create opportunities for people's curiosity to bubble up. In my 30 years at KEXP, I've seen that happen. I'm excited that the station is taking global music much more seriously than it was before, where it was boutique, with shows such as [Wo'Pop]. The fact that that's happening opens up an opportunity for me to try other things. If I'm not gonna do it, who's gonna do it?”
Mazzone's rationale for building his label's roster is at once simple and complex. “If the artists are making you cry, then I want to sign them. If the artists don't have any representation or represent a part of the world that has been maligned by the West—'shithole countries,' Muslim ban, and all that—I want to see what I can do to [help] them.” By November, Mazzone expects to have four to six bands signed to the label, all of whom he expects to potentially blow up.
SAMA has been gaining momentum over the last few years, bringing renowned international musicians to Seattle who typically avoided the region because of apparent lack of interest. “I started SAMA because Seattle wasn't getting enough artists,” Mazzone says. “We would get the superstars, but we weren't getting the artists really doing something in a different way. They would play maybe New York, Chicago, or LA, but they wouldn't come here. So, let's bring them here. And when I saw the struggle they were going through, I thought, let's start the label.”
Programming Wo'Pop and hosting in-studio shows for KEXP's popular YouTube channel has made Mazzone a respected figure worldwide. In his travels, he's often recognized and, to his surprise, people in countries such as Korea, China, and Turkey stop him in the street to chat. “And they have been incredibly excited that, through the YouTube channel, KEXP has been playing a lot of global artists in a way that elevates them at the same level as the artists that the station would be expected to [broadcast]. That tells me that it makes an impact. It tells me that these fans retain it and they keep going back to it. If you look at the numbers of the viewership of the Huun-Huur-Tus, Tamikrests, the DakhaBrakhas, they're in the millions.
“Radio is in flux. The fact that people are still listening to radio is amazing, because there are so many other options. But that level of trust that I helped build at KEXP and that level of intelligent programming... I don't bring an exoticism around it. I try to tell stories about these artists.
“The reason why these artists are important is because their countries are going through very interesting times. You need to learn more about Tamikrest and the Tuareg people. There's no country of Tuareg; they're all over the Sahel and they have a powerful story. If you fall in love with the music, you're going to be curious about [the people who made it]. That creates an opportunity for more humanity.”
Mazzone laments the stunted curiosity and binary mindset that dominate the US. That's one reason he launched a branch of SAMA in Lisbon, Portugal: he finds a richness in its layered cultural identity. “You've got the Portuguese population, you've got all the colonial history—Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Brazil—and you've got these people who are there in this one city from all these different backgrounds who are creating art and cuisine and culture that can't be binary, because there's such a mélange happening there. And the stuff that's coming out is intoxicating.
"It's so open to ideas, suggestions, and concept that, in the United States right now, would be difficult to digest, because there's this rigidity to things that are inconvenient to that narrative of the binary—either you're this or you're that. I'm hoping that we grow up and move to that humanity.”
And with that, Mazzone is off to check out a Persian jam session. Wanderlust never sleeps.