Tuesday, May 6, 2008
It's Frank Calling...
Self-styled vinyl archeologist Frank is based in Conakry in West Guinea and used to run Soul Explosion in Berlin as well as played host to Vampyros Lesbos in New York City. The man clearly knows his onions when it comes to rare and hard to find funk and soul records. He has recently retired from DJing and seems to spend his time solely looking for African Funk records, which from experience is far easier said than done. He runs his blog Voodoo Funk and describes it as, "This blog is about my travels and experiences in a region that despite being plagued by civil wars corrupt governments and other diseases has so much more to offer. Maybe this site will inspire some of You to just go and buy a plane ticket and come to see where we all came from. You might find things more valuable than the rarest records and sometimes you won't even have to dig through dusty boxes to find them."
His latest entry on the blog is a real eye-opener to the dedication and perseverance required to search for records the world over.
As every seasoned digger knows, the path that hopefully will lead us to a particularly desirable record can often be lined with very strange people. Why should Africa be any different? Please note that the following story is an exception and should mean nothing compared to the helpfulness and friendliness I have encountered during the past two years of my stay here in West Africa.
Earlier this month, I received a call from one of my buyers in Cotonou that he found two clean copies of one of my most wanted records. I spontaneously bought a plane ticket and arrived in Cotonou last Friday morning. After two hours of sleep, I jumped on the back of my man's moped and we dove into traffic. First stop was a cool and shady backyard, I had to fight not falling asleep as soon as I sat down in one of the broken plastic chairs. After a while, a young woman arrived with a stack full of records. Unfortunately, they were all in horrible condition, the sleeves were almost completely rotten away and the remaining vinyl was scratched up by layers of sand that had settled between them. We left and I asked my man where the records were that he had told me about. I had promised him a rather large amount for them so it seemed a bit strange why he would hold back like this and not present them to me as soon as he saw me. He answered something that I couldn't hear over the loud traffic around us as were passing the big roundabout at Cotonou's "Etoile Rouge" a big, circular place covered with green cobble stones with a large red star in it's center, a reminder of the country's communist area that looks a bit like a giant commercial ad for Heineken Beer.
We headed outside of the city and after about half an hour, we entered a labyrinth of small sandy roads. My man almost crashlanded our asses into a big heap of garbage as the back wheel kept swerving wildly on the sandy ground as he raced towards his house which was located on a backyard together with four or five other small one story buildings. We entered his home and one of his neighbors came in and joined us as we sat down around a big wooden table. My man turned on the television and some horrid desktop generated electro pop began blaring out of the speaker, the soundtrack for some slightly amusing video of muscular men with bleached beards posing in front of a blue screen background of expensive sports cars. I asked for the records again and he explained that some guy from Lagos had showed up at his house with both copies, asking for 50.000 FCFA ($120) each which he of course couldn't pay so the seller had left again for Nigeria with the records. Obviously a bullshit story. I had told my man that I would pay him that exact amount if he could find this record for me, thinking back now, it's pretty clear to me that he came up with this little tale to scam me into giving him money to buy two nonexisting records. I should have just acted like I believed him and said "okay, never mind, I don't really need the record anyway" but right then, my judgment was clouded by emotion and lack of sleep.
I asked my man why he had told me on the phone that he had the records in his possession while obviously this wasn't the case. This was when my man got upset and started shouting why I would doubt his honesty, going on and on about how he was a reputable businessman and such. I felt bewildered, tried to calm him down and to make him understand how this would be disappointing news for me as I had just spent money on a plane and hotel mainly to get these two records. He got even more upset and I mentioned that perhaps I should better just leave when his neighbor began to intervene, asking me to stay and discuss things. I started feeling more and more weirded out and also began trying to figure out why the hell he would take me all the way out of town to his house to tell me that the records I had come for didn't exist. And why was his neighbor in here with us? My host was getting louder and louder. All I could think of was that it was really getting time to leave this place.
The room was very small, the table took up most of the space, the men were on it's other side, both of them standing by now, while I was still sitting on my chair directly behind the front door. I was dead tired and didn't know if I should just feel confused or if there was reason to feel threatened? Having learned my lesson on my last visit that in doubt, it's better to be a chicken than to put yourself into harms way, I just slid from my chair and was out the door in one fluid move. I ran for the gate without looking back, out on the sandy path and just kept walking back towards where we had come from. Noone seemed to come after me but there were other things to worry about: How the fuck should I find my way back into town? There were tin roof shacks to each side of the small road, they all looked pretty much the same and there was nothing really that I could use for orientation. It was the middle of the day and I didn't feel any direct danger but still I didn't want to look too obviously lost.
Of course, everybody was already staring at me anyway, trying to figure out what I was doing there so I just kept walking like I knew where I was going. Somehow I managed to find a wider road that was used by a few motor bikes and after a while, I saw a Zemidjan, one of Cotonou's army of moped taxis who's drivers all wear bright yellow shirts with their license number painted on the back. "Zemidjan" is in the local language Fon and means "take me away fast" and take me away fast he did. Minutes later, I sat at a bar, drinking an ice cold Beninoise beer, waiting for my other buyer Chakirou who I had just called with the bartenders cell phone. Chakirou and I spent the rest of the weekend cruising around Cotonou and Porto Novo unearthing stacks and stacks of records. After only three days of digging, I took the plane back to Conakry with two heavy suitcases full of vinyl. My neighbor picked me up from the airport and told me that while I was gone, underpaid and unhappy soldiers had taken to the streets of Conakry, shooting and looting at will. Last night was quiet though and today was also uneventful. Hopefully, things will be resolved and I won't have to once more grab the dogs and flee to Sierra Leone.
I get the impression that he has packed up sticks and is moving to NYC for good but not without finding the time to make this movie that hopefully will be out soon.
Also, when you have time check the mixes on his blog, they're ridiculously good.