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Obituary: Mike Steyn

Shusha Guppy
Saturday 09 January 1999 00:02 GMT

MIKE STEYN played an unusual part in the musical life of this country, particularly in the folk revival of the Sixties and Seventies.

While other record companies and producers responded to public interest by promoting the forgotten or neglected treasures of Anglo-American folk music, Steyn went beyond the confines of the West, to Africa and Asia. He launched a number of outstanding musicians and singers, some celebrated in their own countries but unknown in Britain, others new and obscure, and launched their international careers. Their music inspired and influenced musicians and singer-songwriters as diverse as Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, and bands such as Genesis and Fairport Convention.

A fine musician himself, with an unerring ear for tone and colour, Steyn sensed the potential of artists on first hearing them. His high musical standards and his unusual disregard for commercial gain made Tangent Records, the company he started in the late Sixties, a badge of quality. He distributed his productions world-wide through record companies with aims and reputations similar to his own, among them the distinguished Harmonia Mundi in France and Lyrichord in the United States. As a result many of his recordings have endured and become classics of the genre.

Born in South Africa, Steyn showed a precocious aptitude for music. He was virtually self-taught until a bursary brought him to England to study composition and conducting at the Guildhall School of Music, where he was spotted as potentially a star conductor. Among his contemporaries was Jacqueline Dupre, whom he conducted playing Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Guildhall Orchestra. His energy and passionate love of music inspired the members of the orchestra and won him a second grant to continue his studies for a further two years.

In 1958 he was one of 92 candidates taking part in the Morley College Conducting Competition, and won - the chief adjudicator was Sir John Barbirolli, who encouraged him personally. Steyn's success provided him with a year's study at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, and led to engagements with the BBC regional orchestras, the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestras.

By then married, with a child, he found that the precarious life of a roving conductor was not providing him with a regular income and the security he needed, and he took a job conducting the orchestra for the musical Oliver!. For a few years he tried to combine such regular theatre work with orchestral concerts, but the two seemed incompatible.

Though a dedicated musician, Steyn was too modest and independent to promote himself in the competitive world of international conducting, yet he was not content with musicals - his interest was in the works of classical composers, in particular Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler. So he left the profession to work as an independent record producer, learning the ropes from Lionel Segal, the director of Strike Records, then a well- known folk music label.

His own first records were with the northern comedians Blaster Bates and Peter Mallony (who had been a Trappist monk), and they became huge hits, particularly the Blaster Bates series of LPs which are still selling. Steyn could have continued in that field and made a great deal of money, but he was never motivated by money - he followed his heart. With the proceeds from these first hits he started Tangent Records.

Tangent's first three records were of Ethiopian folk music, recorded in Ethiopia by the late Jean Jenkins, then the Curator of Music at the Horniman Museum. Other recordings followed, and in 1976 he released a box of six LPs of music from all over the Islamic world, to coincide with the World of Islam Festival in London - it is now a collectors' item. There followed seven records of Scottish music with Edinburgh University, three LPs with Mustafa Tettiy-Addy, the Ghanaian drummer and one of Africa's best-loved musicians, and many more - some 120 recordings of music from all over the world.

When he sensed that his job was done, he left to return to classical music and composition, handing over Tangent's distribution to Topic Records, one of Britain's oldest and best folk labels. Unfortunately he also discovered he had cancer. He devoted the same single-minded effort he had deployed in his work to combat his illness, and succeeded in winning long periods of remission - he was given six months by his doctors and lived six years.

I met Mike Steyn with Jean Jenkins in 1969, and sang him a Persian folksong. He gave me a contract for an LP. We recorded Persian Love Songs and Mystic Chants almost a cappella, with just a touch of flute and hand-drum, in his studio - the crypt of a church in Holland Road, London. A second record followed, of English songs, which led to my receiving offers from major record companies.

Far from binding me with lifelong contracts - at a time when record producers were taking options even on their artists' children, in case they became musicians too - he let me go, saying that his label was too specialised for me. He had the true artist's generosity and humility, and we remained friends. I never released a record without first consulting him.

I made one more record with him, From East to West, a fusion of Persian and Western music, produced and arranged by Paul Buckmaster (the arranger of, among others, Elton John and Mick Jagger). Both these records of Persian traditional songs are still extant, on Tangent in Britain and on Lyrichord in the US.

Shusha Guppy

Michael Eugene Steyn, record producer: born Cape Town 23 July 1931; married 1956 Wendy Munton (one son); died London 3 January 1999.

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