Lewis Heriz: The Artist Behind The Vintage African Album Covers For Soundway, Strut Records, Now-Again & More

A conversation with designer and illustrator Lewis Heriz, the man behind Soundway Records, Strut, Now-Again and Sofrito's artwork.

London-based designer and illustrator Lewis Heriz has been creating vivid and colorful album artwork for the past seven years. His extensive output has been used by Soundway Records, Strut Records, Now-Again/Stones Throw, and Sofrito as covers for the likes of Quantic, Seu Jorge, Batida, Konkoma, and Ibibio Sound Machine, as well as compilations that include Kenya SpecialHighlife On The Move, Tumbélé! and many more. This Thursday, Heriz's work will be celebrated at the Ace Hotel's Cover Club in London, a free event that puts the spotlight on the artists behind some of the most creative record covers. We spoke with Heriz below ahead of the event.

Okayafrica: How did you first get involved in designing album artwork? What cover of yours would you consider your first 'break'?

Lewis Heriz: It all came from the poster designing I was doing as part of my music promotion work in Nottingham and London around 07/08. Gradually the bands we were putting on — and the labels whose records we played — started asking me to work on their releases off the back of these posters. It was very gradual and organic, so quite hard to pinpoint a single break, but the first jobs for Soundway were instrumental in cementing my current career in music design. Those would be the Ghana Special and Tumbélé! compilations. Almost at the same time the first jobs with Now-Again records — Whitefield Brothers' Earthology and the Seu Jorge & Almaz project — happened, which were also very important. 2009 was quite a big year.

OKA: How did you get into designing album covers for African artists and releases?

LH: It's important to point out that the majority of my designs for releases related to the African diaspora have been compilations of old recordings rather than for new bands, so a lot of my artwork referenced the mid-20th century design associated with the music from that time. In my poster work for Sofrito, the task was to reflect the energy of the largely 60s & 70s dance music played at the nights, and the fact it's both old yet entirely relevant to the modern dancefloor. I think it was this approach to visually representing the relevance of the music to a modern global audience that helped me get work with the labels that were trying to do precisely that with their releases. There was a matching of intent. With the Soundway records, the conversation with Miles Cleret (Soundway label owner) was always, 'how do we push it forward, while still referencing the era in which the the music was produced?' When Soundway then started signing new artists, such as Batida, Konkoma & Ibibio Sound Machine, that aspect of looking forward made it easier to transition visually from a reissue label to a fully-fledged signing label.

OKA: How would you describe your aesthetic?

LH: I always try to match the visual with the music, so I try not to impose any particular aesthetic, or come at it with a specific direction before understanding where the music's coming from. Which makes it hard for me to answer this one! But a lot of what I do has an analogue feel, often looking (even if it isn't) hand-printed or hand-drawn, and I lean towards a limited but bold colour palette - I suppose this tends to make my work look older than it is, but as I said, I don't want it to look retro if possible. My love of modernist/mid-20th century art & design is a huge factor in what I do, yet I'm always trying to develop on from that in some way.

OKA: What are some of the main visual influences on your work? Who are other cover designers/illustrators you're influenced by?

LH: Honestly, I'm as much influenced by visuals I dislike than the ones I like! Because it's only through knowing what you don't like that you can properly distinguish the boundaries of your taste. In terms of the record covers, the main influences depend on the release and the specific brief. I try to keep an open mind, because very often the music is in some way connected with artwork that is incredibly inspiring and deserves to come through in the new design. This led me from Ghanaian record designs, through the Cuban poster artists of ICAIC and OSPAAAL, on to South Asian book cover designers whose names, in many cases, are lost to history... all of this research has had a huge impact. However I rarely go to professional designers or illustrators for inspiration. While I could list some of my favourite designers, that would be far less indicative of what inspires me than the way those not formally trained in visual art or design (I also fall in that category) modify and delineate their surroundings with colour, hand-painted signs, murals, clothing and so on - it's this public art that communicates a sense of collective self and belonging, as it's inextricably linked with place. That's what inspires me more than anything, especially for record covers of music from a specific place in the world.

OKA: What has been your favorite release to work on?

LH: I'm so lucky to have mostly worked on albums I absolutely love, so I could genuinely name pretty much any one and have a good reason for it — but I would definitely put Ondatrópica up there. It's such a triumphant celebration of Colombian music past and present, involving so many musical legends, and the playing across the board is often astonishing. I really think it's a modern classic, and it was a huge honour to produce the cover art for it. I'd really like to mention the Ghana Special set again though, because it was a love of Ghanaian & Nigerian music that set me in this direction in the first place. Again, it felt like a real honour to be packaging all this incredible music so that it could be heard by the wider audience it deserves.

OKA: List your top 5 album covers of all-time.

LH: You can't make me! This is an impossible task. But here are 5 I love for various reasons:

Ryco Jazz - Tu Bois Beaucoup (by Daniel Gargar): I'm a huge fan of Daniel Gargar's artwork. He created a large proportion of sleeves for the great label of Guadeloupe, Disques Debs, as well as being a recording musician. Out of all his covers, this is the one that probably excites me the most - I'm always drawn to the more abstract sleeve designs as, when done well, they can communicate the music in a more direct way. This is a fantastic example of that. I was alerted to his sleeves via Sofrito's Hugo Mendez who has a large collection of them.

Asiko Rock Group - S/T (designer unknown): It doesn't get much more righteous than this. Asiko Rock Group played a kind of no-holds-barred Nigerian p-funk and psychedelic disco, and the sleeve is a declaration of boldness that matches the music perfectly. It's a lesson in design impact, but while the simplicity hits you first, it's the combination of that and the delicacy of the fabric design and border that makes it truly excellent.

Henri Guedon - Cosmozouk (Henri Guedon): I clearly have a thing for sleeves designed by musicians. Even better if the artwork is by the album's composer, as it makes the package an even more complete presentation of their artistic expression... I love this painting so much, and while the typography isn't what you'd expect it's somehow perfect. I had the honour of restoring this sleeve for the recent reissue on Superfly Records, so I've spent quite a lot of quality time admiring it.

Sun Ra - The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (Sun Ra): Another example of a musician having complete control over their visual language as well as the musical. His approach, as with his music, is one of spontaneity and improvisation, and that makes his sleeve designs among the most perfect in the jazz world for me. This is one of those ones that I can happily get lost in. It was also instrumental in inspiring my design for the In The Orbit of Ra compilation on Strut.

Kyeremateng Atwede & Kyeramateng Stars - I Go Die For You (Mike Owusu-Siaw) - There have been so many amazing Ghanaian record cover artists and designers - E. E. Lamptey, Samuel Buabin, Augustus Taylor, Mantsefio Bampoe (to name a fraction) are all incredibly inspiring. This one, by Mike Owusu-Siaw, is one of my all-time favourite covers, for an all-time favourite album. In the title track I Go Die For You, Atwede's declaration of love is about as raw and honest as it gets: 'I go die for you, I go die for you; Christie, I go die for you'. Owusu-Siaw's illustration beautifully captures the look of mutual adoration expressed in the vocals - it feels like we're privy to a moment of affection so private we ought to really look away.

Cover Club is an event that puts the spotlight on the people behind the most creative record covers. It takes place at Ace Hotel, London and is completely free. Find out more about Lewis Heriz from his website, Twitter, and Facebook.


Listen to Samthing Soweto’s Album ‘Isiphithiphithi’

Samthing Soweto's highly anticipated album is finally here.

One of the most anticipated albums of the year, Isiphithiphithi by Samthing Soweto is finally here.

The South African artist's project consists of 12 songs and features Makhafula Vilakazi, Shasha, Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa and Mlindo The Vocalist.

Keep reading... Show less
Gallo Images/Getty Images

South African Telenovela 'The River' has Been Nominated for an International Emmy

This is the popular telenovela's first International Emmy nomination.

One of South Africa's beloved telenovelas, The River, has received its first ever International Emmy nomination in the category of "Best Telenovela", according to IOL. The River will go up against other telenovelas from Columbia, Argentina as well as Portugal. The 47th installment of the International Emmy Awards will take place on November 25th of this year and will be held at the Hilton in New York.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

get okayafrica in your inbox