As a newcomer to the forum not sure if this has been seen before, but I came across it the other day and though I've no particular interest in African vinyl, this story struck a nerve in me, for the blokes sheer persistence and love of the 7" single!
Taken from guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4228456,00.html
Record-collecting obsessive Duncan Brooker spent seven years trawling Africa for rare 60s and 70s funk in an attempt to preserve it for posterity. He didn't know he'd also end up trying to save the musicians who created it
Friday July 27, 2001
In February 1994, when I was 19, I got a job in London with the television wing of the news agency Reuters, as a runner, driver and general dogsbody. The job involved a lot of travelling, from one news story to another, and later that year it took me to Nairobi to work on a co-production with the Kenyan agency Camerapix. Camerapix was run by Mohammed Amin, the extraordinary cameraman whose pictures of the 1984 Ethiopian famine stirred Bob Geldof to launch Live Aid. Amin subsequently lost an arm in a rocket attack, replacing it with a prosthetic one so he could still work the camera.
After the job was finished, I asked Amin for a work placement, explaining that he didn't have to pay me, if he could just sort out my accommodation. Instead he gave me an African wage of £70 a month, and left me to sort out my own accommodation. I arranged a houseshare in a Nairobi slum with one of my Camerapix colleagues.
I stayed in Kenya for six months, fetching and carrying, flying, driving and bussing around east Africa: Zaire, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia. I'd be sent to the borders of Ethiopia to pick up people or tapes, or to the airport to collect Amin. When I wasn't working, and sometimes when I was, I'd be looking for records.
Music and vinyl have been my obsession since I was 13, when I picked out the Best of James Brown album in a Woolworths sale. I spent the rest of my spare time as a teenager going to car boot sales, and rooting through the bargain bins in second-hand shops, looking for soul, jazz and funk. When I was 16, I found an album by the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, which seemed much deeper and more spiritually and musically complete than anything I had heard before. I knew there must be more: you don't get one amazing album in isolation. But information about African music of the 1960s and 1970s was even harder to find 10 years ago than it is now.
Vinyl is increasingly rare in Africa. Except in South Africa and Zimbabwe, records have been phased out in favour of cassettes, many of them pirated. But the biggest problem, as I started scouring east Africa for funk, was finding vinyl in good condition. In Africa, records were an expensive luxury and most people didn't buy them to play once or twice, but hundreds of times. A lot of people seem to have bought a turntable in 1970 and still be using the same needle, which now has the sensitivity of a nail and is about as damaging for the vinyl. Then children would get hold of the records and they'd be used as frisbees or doorstops. By the time I got to them, they were usually in very bad shape.
Sometimes I found them in the market: there would be boxes of old records sitting on the ground, usually in direct sunlight, covered in dust and slowly warping in the heat. If I was lucky, I might pull one or two clean ones from a pile. Sometimes I found them in people's houses. In parts of Africa they call records "plates". Someone I met in the street might say: "Yeah, I've got some plates. Come and have a look." Then we'd drive out to their house in a village in the bush, which could take 45 minutes or half a day, and I'd be shown a pile of records, usually sleeveless, covered with mud. Perhaps one in a hundred of these would be useful to me. I tried not to pay more than the equivalent of 3p or 4p for each record. They only sold for 1p or 2p and people would try to charge 15p a record. I just couldn't afford that. I had to make people believe I was poor - which was the truth after all. I was living on £35 a month after rent.
Very occasionally, I would just take them. I remember looking for somewhere to stay in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and going to check out a hotel room. It was cheap but not nice and I wasn't sure whether to take it. Then I saw there was a pile of records, covered in inches of dust, stacked on the wardrobe. They were an odd mixture, some Indian soundtracks together with African records. So I took the room and, when I left, I took some of the records with me. I don't think anyone missed them.
I found vinyl in shops, too. Not record shops as such, but cassette shops, bicycle repair shops, garages and electrical shop. I would walk past and something would give it away - perhaps a record sleeve nailed to the wall. I would ask if they had any vinyl and, if I was lucky, they would show me around the back where I'd see a heap of old records. Sometimes I would go weeks without finding anything.
In downtown Nairobi, I found Melodica, a shop run by a man called Abdul Karim. It was founded by his father, Daudia Karim, who was a serious force in the Kenyan music scene in the 1970s, and whom Abdul swears was poisoned as he was about to be made head of the musicians' union in Kenya. The ground floor is a cassette shop selling everything from Jim Reeves to Manu Dibango, and upstairs is a room full of records.
It took me weeks to persuade Abdul to let me go up there. The room is half- height, so you have to bend nearly double to walk around, and it's pitch-black as there are no lights. The floor is covered with the debris of another era - old gramophones, album covers, bits of broken vinyl, even a stuffed gazelle. The shop backs on to one of Nairobi's busiest roads, which over the years has kicked up enough dust to leave six inches deep on the racks of decaying 45s that line the shelves. I guess there are around 18,000 records there and I spent weeks rooting around in the dark, taking records out into the sun to read their battered sleeves and labels, checking and listening to every record of interest. The dust got to me in the end and I became ill. Abdul offered to buy me a face-mask.
I returned to London in July 1995. I caught the plane with a trunk full of singles and bags full of hundreds of records. I didn't realise - properly - what I'd got until I got it back to my parents' house and started sorting through it. If I believed that Africa had produced a lot more original music than Fela Kuti, I now had the evidence: hundreds of albums and singles of material unheard in the west.
It was a natural progression to want to put a compilation together: if I didn't do it, it seemed clear that nobody else would, and the music would be lost. The tracks I was looking for were mostly put out on small, independent labels, usually for a local market, and sometimes only 500 copies were pressed. The master tapes were being destroyed - sometimes they had simply been recorded over - the musicians were dying and people's memories were fading. And there is no record of much of this music ever having been made. Most countries in Africa have no body that deals with music copyright. Where musicians' unions exist, they are too corrupt or too inefficient to be effective.
In the early days, I thought about bootlegging the music. I could just put it out and most of the artists would never find out. I began to look into it, then changed my mind. Partly, I realised that selling this music in Africa would be impossible because Africans don't want it. "This is old-time music, my friend," one man told me. "Why are you interested in this stuff? It's no good. We listen to Snoop Doggy Dogg." And partly it was because I was beginning to find out about the poverty most of the musicians were living in. If I could get the music over here and get people to buy it, I could get the money sent back to Africa and they could do what they liked with it. Hopefully, it would get these musicians working again and encourage new young musicians. Most of the people who are on the album don't even own instruments any more.
I now work freelance, as a sound engineer, but in those days I was a runner and a driver for film companies. The film industry goes dead over Christmas so in November, December, January and February, I could take off for Africa with my savings. In London, it seems, you spend a lot of money even when you're doing nothing, while in Africa you can live for very little. So I spent the next six years travelling between London and Africa. In London, I would do as much research as I could, trying to find out what I had and what was out there that I didn't have. In Africa, I was buying more vinyl and trying to trace the artists who created and developed Afro funk.
One of the bands I was most interested in was Air Fiesta Matata. A Kenyan 10-piece, Matata produced east Africa's finest funk in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1969 they played with Miles Davis in Germany, and Davis was impressed enough to invite them to America. In 1971, the BBC World Service crowned them Best Band in Africa.
The key to finding Matata was finding the singer and bandleader, Steele Beauttah. I asked around the usual shops and bars in Nairobi. Several people told me he was dead. Then, on a Christmas trip in 1998, Abdul Karim told me he had found him, that he was working as a band booker in a sleazy bar called Simmer's - the sort of place where you can order anything from kebabs to prostitutes. We walked there and Abdul introduced me to him, a short, stout, grey-haired man but with an extraordinary level of calm around him.
Beauttah had been addicted to heroin for 25 years. He got into drugs at the same time as everyone else in Matata, after the "world tour" in 1974. The band were at the height of their ability and fame, and were invited to Hong Kong for a six-week tour, their payment being the instruments they played with. Quality musical instruments were rare and expensive in Africa at that time.
Then they came to Europe, playing the exclusive Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, which Beauttah told me was his favourite gig ("It gave me great pleasure to hear the American celebrities applaud") and London, including Ronnie Scott's. On the return flight to Kenya, their manager, Mogosti, told them there was a problem with customs and that he would follow them on the next plane home, bringing the instruments, equipment and cash from the tour with him. He never turned up. I heard later that he had moved to Jamaica.
Without any money or instruments, Matata fell apart. Several of them got heavily into drugs. Beauttah had a stab at a solo career but this fizzled out in 1976. A year before we met in Simmer's, Beauttah was lying in the gutter, preparing to die. His son and daughter picked him up and turned him round: he became religious ("I discovered a power higher than me"), gave up the smack and found a job related to music. I explained why I was looking for him and showed him the sleeves of the Matata albums and handed him a copy of "Africa" from 23 years before. There was a record player in the bar and I put it on. The waitresses and all the staff and people around couldn't believe it was him singing on the track. "He's no singer!" they said.
Beauttah said he would introduce me to the Matata guitarist, Sammy Kangenda, and sent a message to him. I waited at the appointed place for several hours before he turned up. He apologised for being late and said he didn't have the money for the bus fare - it was around 10p - and he had walked for three hours from his village outside Nairobi to get here.
Kangenda wasn't in good shape. He had also been addicted to heroin and seemed unable to remember the songs he had written. I sang one to him, humming the bassline, but he couldn't remember it.
Digging through the Camerapix archive later, I found a previously unseen photograph by Mohammed Amin of the band on Kenya's Rainbow television show. Beauttah is pictured holding a sledgehammer, about to crack a rock balanced on the chest of an Ethiopian strongman, while the rest of the band, including Kangenda, look on. I gave a copy to Beauttah. He couldn't remember the moment, or even remember being on the show, and he cried. He had had all his possessions stolen in the 1980s.
One or two of the musicians who wrote the music I had collected were impossible to find. Others were dead. In 1994, in an electrical shop that's now closed down, I found a copy of the single Fever by Ishmael Jingo. I had tried to find him on two previous visits to Africa and was unsuccessful. In 1998, I spent three weeks looking for him. I was told by people who said they had played with him that I should go to Mombasa. I finally found his village and his family, saw the garage where he had recorded the track, and met the bass player from the band, who gave me the photo of Jingo that features on the album . He granted me licence to use it.
Tracking down Slim Alli was as difficult, though he is still alive. Typically, when I asked people who had played with him if they knew where he was, they said they hadn't seen him for a decade, that I should look east. I spent three or four weeks asking around Mombasa and was getting closer and closer. It was 10 years ago, then five years ago. Then three. Then it was: "Oh, yeah. I saw him play down the hotel by the beach." So I went to every tourist hotel on the beach on the strip north of Mombasa and couldn't find anyone who had seen him recently.
I had been eating in a small restaurant in Mombasa called Swahili Eats for several weeks. One day the proprietor asked what I was doing there. Looking for a musician, I said. You've probably never heard of him. "Oh, you mean Slim Alli?" he said. "He's my friend. Come tomorrow and I'll take you to his brother's house."
We spent half a day on buses, riding out to a village north of Mombasa. The house was made of concrete blocks with cast iron doors and a corrugated iron roof. Alli wasn't there but his brother, Abdul Said, was - and he was stunned that this white kid had come looking for his brother and knew almost every recording he had ever made. He got out all the photos of him and his band, the Hodi Boys, on stage in the 1970s and told me stories about the good times, when there was a little bit of foreign money, as well as local money, coming in, an industry that supported musicians, and clubs to play. There is nothing of that left now. Most of the people who are still making a living from music are playing hotel lobbies for tourists.
In west Africa, I found I was dealing mainly with producers - frequently the rights to a piece of music revert to the producer after a period of time. In order to trace music by the Ghanaian great K Frimpong, I needed to trace a producer called James Ofori and went to visit a man I knew, AK Brobbey, who styles himself "Africa's number one producer". Brobbey told me he knew Ofori well and that he would take me to him.
I jumped in the car with his driver, his daughter and two or three people that we were just giving a lift to. The village was a two-hour drive from Kumasi but it took us all day because the car broke down a lot and - because I was Brobbey's guest - I wasn't allowed to help push, though his daughter had to. In the end, I climbed out and pushed anyway. We got the car patched up at a garage and bumped on over the potholes to Ofori's village.
Ofori has become a poultry farmer. He lives in a two-storey house - the lower level is taken up by chickens while he and his family live upstairs. He was amazed to see me, telling me he hadn't talked about his music with anyone for seven or eight years, and started getting out all his photos of his studio and musicians in enormous flares and Afros. I told him I was looking for music by K Frimpong. "I have a copy of the cassette here somewhere," he said.
He found it and put it on, and his seven children came running in. They stared at me for a little while - I was, I suppose, the first white man they'd ever seen - then started dancing around. I told him I wanted to license the music, so that it could be heard outside Africa. "No, no. Come with me," he said, and led me downstairs into a room full of chickens. He started pulling out bags and reels of tape crusted with a thick layer of chicken shit and dust - everything in Africa gets coated with dust. "My God," he was saying, looking into cans of tape. "I don't know what's in this one. I haven't looked in here for 20 years. Which track were you after?" he asked. "Kyenken Bi Adi M'Awu," I said (which means Come Back My Love in the local language). "I can't believe you've still got it."
"It's lucky because Frimpong came here about seven years ago and took it away. But he came back. It's been in this room ever since." I told him I needed to take it away to get it recorded on to digitial audio tape. Fine, he said, bring it back when you've finished with it. I thought it would be completely shot, unusable, but in fact it was really very good, very clean stuff. I had another track.
I now have around 20,000 records. I have set up a label, Kona records, and enough of Africa's 1970s musicians have trusted me with their music for three volumes of Afro-Rock, as well as numerous other projects. There are 11 tracks on the first album and the royalties are split 11 ways. The plan for me is to go back to Africa and, now that I have something concrete to show, find even more musicians and more music. And I want to start a register so that foreigners who want to trace African musicians can find them without having to search for as long as I did.
I also want to get some of these musicians back on the circuit. I was planning to get a UK tour together for Steele Beauttah and Matata. Several venues seemed interested. But four weeks ago, the news came through that Beauttah had died. I'm not sure if he ever got to see and hear a finished copy of the album. The next volume will be dedicated to him.