Monday, September 10, 2007

How 196 non-existing records made me grow taller

September 10th 2007

It is often an awkward situation to go to people's houses and look through their record collection. I've done this before in the US and already there it sometimes was a strange feeling. You're a stranger in somebody else's house, almost like a burglar with a permission. In Africa you get the additional element of severe economical difference, most people you meet would be considered extremely poor by any western standards. Often, I find myself in the house of a family who is obviously in a more or less desperate need of money and they show me their dead grandfathers record collection. If I don't find anything except scratched up Highlife and Folklore records it is clear that their disappointment will be much bigger than mine. Especially if they've heard from friends or neighbors where I've been before how they'd made a lot of money by selling old records to the white man. Most times, I just buy a few things just to see some happy faces and to not feel too bad.

Quite often, I spend a whole day in the same neighborhood, going from house to house with a growing tail of "guides" who all say they know someone who has plenty of records, exactly the kind I'm looking for. Sometimes we never find this miraculous person and if we do, the record collection is usually stored away someplace else, in another town or just next door but locked away in a room for which the key is lost or the key is with a relative who happens to be in another town. The difficulty of telling truth from fiction is all part of the adventure.

In order to be more effective on my search and also for reasons of security, I always employ a few helpers who accompany me or who I can send ahead to scout out more remote areas and also continue searching for records when I'm not around. While staying in Accra, I had one helper scouting the city and another one who was traveling to Kumasi and other places to try and find leads.

On a Friday, I received a call from a Mr. Brown out of Tarkwa which is about 4 hours away from Accra towards the border to Ivory Coast. Mr. Brown said he had operated a "recording studio" (in Africa, those are places where people had collections of LPs and 45 to record custom made mix tapes for their customers) and that he would still have his entire collection of records, all from the 1970s. This sounded really good but I had a lot of leads in Accra at the time and didn't want to loose two days to travel to Tarkwa and back so at first I started to check if he'd have anything worthwhile by asking him for a few records I was particularly after and when he claimed to have them, I offered to pay for his transportation if he'd bring them to Accra for me. He agreed and kept calling back, asking me to name other records. I spent hours on the phone with Mr. Brown and 90% of all records I mentioned to him he claimed to have. He said he would leave his home on Monday morning and that he would meet me in Accra around noon. Mr. Brown continued to call me all through the weekend, asking me for more and more titles and it became more and more apparent that this could be the find of my lifetime. On Sunday evening, Mr. Brown also wanted to know how much money I'd be willing to pay for each record, he claimed to already have 196 LPs packed up plus a fair amount of 45s. I told him I'd be ready. Since I had already spent a good amount of money in Accra at this time and just to be totally on the save side, I called a friend in Germany to send some additional funding through Western Union first thing Monday Morning.

Monday Morning at 5:00 am Mr. Brown called me and informed me that his son has had an accident. He explained how while helping him pack he records, his son had dropped one of them which then had shattered into shards. His son then had stepped into one of the pieces of the record which caught him at such an unfortunate angle that he suffered a deep flesh wound which needed immediate medical attention so he had to take his son to the hospital right away. Mr. Brown promised to be on the road to Accra on Tuesday morning.

First I thought "what a bunch of bullshit" how could a shattered record in the worst case scenario leave anything more serious behind than a scratch? I began to have doubts in Mr. Browns credibility but then I remembered how Mr. Brown had mentioned specific details about certain records I had asked him about that he could not have known without having the record in front of him. Or was I putting things in his mouth just out of wishful thinking? Just to be ready for any eventualities, I went ahead and cashed the money order. In Ghana they just had a renomination of their money so now you can carry in a purse what before would have filled a large backpack. Unfortunately for me, these new bills somehow were distributed unevenly which was why the friendly lady behind the Western Union counter didn't have any large bills and handed me a big brick of 1 Cedi bills. The Cedi is worth about as much as the US dollar so image cashing in $2.000 at your local bank and being handed the entire amount in one dollar bills.

Tuesday came and in the Afternoon, Mr. Brown called me to inform me that he had still been busy tending to his wounded son for most of the morning but that he was now on his way to Accra. He said he would arrive in the evening, go straight to a hotel to spend the night and meet me at my hotel first thing Wednesday morning. I asked him to come to my hotel right away and offered to pay for his room and everything but he refused, explaining how he was afraid of thieves and that after dark, he wouldn't want to wander around an area of Accra than he was not familiar with.

I called Mr. Brown's cell phone early on Wednesday morning to make sure he had arrived in Accra and he said he was already on his way to meet me. About three hours later, he finally arrived. To my surprise, he did not have any records with him. Mr. Brown said it had been so many records that he hadn't been able to take them to the Hotel with him and that they would be at the bus and taxi terminal where we should now both go together to do the transaction. I explained to him that the transaction would have to take place inside the lobby of the hotel and that I would not want to carry a large chunk of cash around at a busy place like the bus and taxi terminal. At this time, it was already clear to me that Mr. Brown was full of shit and that the whole thing was nothing but a set-up. Of course Mr. Brown never showed up with the records and when I -just out of curiosity had a friend call him up a day later. Mr. Brown told him he had already returned to Trakwa with his 196 records.

I continued finding lots of vinyl in and around Accra so the dismay about Mr. Browns imaginary record collection was relatively short-lived. But when it was time to leave, I still had this thick brick of money plus some remains from my original funds. I had all my carry-on luggage filled with records and when I stuffed all the cash in this little pouch that I use to safely carry money, IDs and other important paper work under my boxer shorts, it looked really kinda silly, even though I was wearing loosely fitting cargo pants. I thought "what the heck, no-one is going to be staring at my crotch and if they do, just let them draw whatever conclusions they might want to...".
I went through check-in, the friendly and cute attendant thankfully decided to just ignore the few pounds of excessive check-in luggage and didn't want to argue about my two bulky carry-on bags. I went to the upper floor and headed for the emigration counter, the female officer on duty asked me to come back soon and gave me a sweet smile. Everything was nice and easy until the metal detector started beeping. I was approached by a grim looking official in a black uniform who asked me over to a table and demanded me to open my bags. I showed him my diplomatic passport and explained that my bags would be off-limits to him. he shrugged, put on an even meaner look and said that since the metal detector had gone off, he was supposed to pat me down and check the bags of my pants and shirt.

I grinned and said "you go ahead, officer" and he went straight for the big bump under my belt buckle "what's this?" he asked. "just some money..." I responded. He told me to follow him to his office where I should reveal my hidden goods. I decided to unzip my pants right where we were standing, As my pants dropped down to my knees, I grabbed inside my boxer shorts , unsnapped the closing mechanism of the pouch's strap and retrieved my package of money for the officer to examine.

Unfortunately for me, the government of Ghana is very protective of their new, colorful currency and I was informed that the amount I was carrying with me, grossly exceeded the legal limit one is allowed to carry outside the country. I was told to go back downstairs to the currency exchange office where I could change my money back into Euros. Of course the office was closed.

This was when I decided to go to one of the restrooms which turned out to be surprisingly clean and spacious. I took off one of my combat boots and put half of the money inside of it, just like an additional inner sole. I did the same thing with my other boot, left only whatever Euros i had left inside the pouch and went back outside. I sat down on a bench and waited for about half an hour and then went back upstairs. It was kinda funny walking in those boots, they felt like platform shoes and I could really feel the difference of being about an inch taller than before.

The friendly emigration officer put on a face when I explained what had happened to me and said "yes, some of those guys are wicked". Once again the metal detector went off and I was approached by the same officer as before. I grabbed into my pants, retrieved the pouch, opened it up for him and said "look, all Euros now!". He proceeded to pat me down and even gave the shaft of my boots some close examination. He had me sweating there for a second. Lucky for me, he had no idea how close he was, he seemed unsatisfied that he could not cause me any further trouble and I was told to leave.

After the plane had left the ground, I took off my boots and under the bewildered looks of the two other passengers sitting next to me, I retrieved my money, split it in several bundles and stowed them away into the various pockets of my cargo pants.

This is some of the stuff that I brought back from Ghana, a new mix featuring these records is already in the works:

Right after my arrival in Conakry, I received a message from my chief record hunter in Benin saying that he had found a large amount of vinyl for me. I went over there for the weekend and this is what our house has been looking like for the past two weeks now:

Soul kitchen: Rinsing off the mold from old Albarika Store deadstock.

Bed of records: Letting them dry after the cleaning process is finished.


Cyril said...

OMG, that's what i call a solid bunch of incredible records. Ghana soundz 3 in the works :)
Cool story... thanks

Mr. Dubbs said...

I don't know what is more exciting, the music you're putting up or the stories that are behind the genesis of your music posts. As always, I'm pins and needles for the next post. Glad to hear some of your last hunts have been more humorous than dangerous. Thanks as always Frank!

Pieter said...

Himmel uber Conakry! Vinyl angels have blessed you!

Anonymous said...

frank, i can remain silent no longer. in the past months i have been so very enriched by both your spelunking of these holy grail level rarities and writings of your adventures. hands down THE dialed-in blog for the "golden age" of african movement musics. its because i see that you have unearthed the 3 godly Marijata LPs that i write. pwitty pweeze with dust bunnys on top... make a pure marijata mix, or feature them heavily somehow. i would imagine i am not alone in this thought.

keep it up sir. we the eccentric international community of truly-spirited-music collectors and enthusiasts owe you a huge communal hug...

(((((((( ))))))))

Anonymous said...

What a great story, thanks for taking the time to share it with us.
I'm going to Mali for 2 weeks in November, it will be my first time in Africa.
I'd like to buy some music while I'm there, but I don't think I'll be as dedicated as you are Frank.
Keep up the good work
Chris Ward
Nottingham UK

jon said...

Great story. And don't forget a good dose of Frimpong in your new mix! Thanks,

Anonymous said...

Wow. That is one seriously amazing cache of records. Four Ebo Taylor LPs! Defintiely looking forward to the next mix.

soungalo said...

just found your blog via matsuli. excellent stuff. and as one who has spent a significant amount of time in mali and guinea, i love your stories. sad to read of the continuing mr. mafa stories of government corruption, and funny to read about arbitrary enforcement of "laws" from those like the guy in ghana. good thinking on the boots. keep it up.

hadebo said...

so music and diplomacy go hand in hand. good to know.
what a story once again! a very interesting read as always! keep them coming. please!

Patrick said...

I love your mixes. Why don't you post all of these wonderful records up so we can hear them for ourselves, like a lot of other blogs do? Or do you not agree with that?

Frank said...

No, I don't agree with that... that would be way too much work and I prefer to spend my time traveling and finding more records. I have much more fun selecting specific tracks and putting together mixes than recording entire albums.

MrC said...

man i love your tales (i love your mixes too of course!) ... looking forward to hearing about your further adventures

MrC ;)

Comb & Razor said...

what's the title of that Toby Foyeh record? i've been trying to find "I'm On Fire/"Ore Mi"...

Frank said...

It is "I'm On Fire"... flipside is "Disco Woman". Sorry, no spare though. I'll let you know should come across another copy.

Eamonn said...

Super story!

Yaw said...

Ebo Taylor. wow!

kepnerb said...

Frank How do you clean your vinyl?

Frank said...

I usually wash them in the kitchen sink with warm water and liquid soap. Then I put them on the turntable before they get fully dry and wipe them with microfiber cloths and a mixture of distilled water, 10% rubbing alcohol and just a dash of liquid soap. then I let them dry. If there is still some dirt left, I resort to lighter fluid, vinegar concentrate and varius secret potions. I always use the mix with distilled water after every cleaning process to prevent any residues from other liquids.

Anonymous said...

what a fun. your cash smuggling was just the thing that was going on in middle and eastern europe under communist rule, when you could travel abroad with the small given amount of money only, for which you could have buy yourself maybe a few beers in a pub. and the music is even more fun. especially with such a weather outside i appreciate the heat of africa. thanks

Anonymous said...

ouahhh ! what a job ! what a blog ! virtual trip included Jeff