Archive for November 2010
A call from Salim. More records had been turned up, and I should come and check them out at my earliest convenient. Salim of course is not merely being altruistic. I give him a small fee for his record finding, so it’s understood there’s a fiscal undercurrent to his updates.
I head over to the Old City in the evening. I doubt I’ll ever tire of its labyrinthine streets, crowded spice markets and gingerbread architecture. We head to one of the shops, to be met with a man who had a nervy shiftiness, possibly due to the impossibly large wad of qat he’d crammed into his left cheek. He pulls out two large hessian sacks stuffed full of records. As he decanted the contents onto the counter, it soon became apparent that this was mostly Soviet era vinyl, be it Russian editions of Paul McCartney LPs, endless classical records or tiresome propaganda, such as my personal favorite, ‘My Boundless Motherland’. Despite the slightly anachronistic feel of hunting for things that are deemed obsolete by others, the types of records you’ll find in certain countries will often point to an important skein in the nation’s recent history.
The USSR was quietly present through Marxist elements in Yemen’s National Liberation Front, (as well as aspects of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism) which had partly forced the exit of the British in southern Yemen in 1967, an additional blow to the country’s trade links following on from the Suez crisis. Southern Yemen contains the crucial regional port of Aden, and this part of the country became a further arena for Cold War machinations. The north and south split was only resolved with the unification of the country in 1990.
I’d encountered a similar musical selection in Hanoi, bolstered by East German rock, jazz from Czechoslovakia, and, rather pleasingly, some excellent Cuban music on the state owned Areito label. One could imagine a faithful Vietnamese cadre being rewarded for his commitment to the Party, with a tour of other countries where the Soviet revolution smoldered on. Perhaps he had bought them back as mementoes.
Back in Yemen the nervy qat chewer looked disappointedly as I passed over most of what he had. The condition was either atrocious, or the music itself was. There were a couple of nice curios. One was a Polish record, The Novi Singers ‘Rien Ne Va Plus’ which contains the excellent, ‘My Own Revolution’. Odd as it was to find this here, it at list fitted into this Soviet profile.
Not so an obscure Gospel album. I can’t quite remember the band, but it was something like ‘The Hilman Street Choir’. How on earth did this record crop up here? You’d have thought either the Islamic conservatives or the godless Communists might have objected! I explained to Salim and his friends what it was and how surprised I was to find a record extolling the virtues of Jesus Christ in the capital of Yemen.
As the record played, familiar rhythms and American blues motifs shifted around as the choir described ‘trusting in the Lord’, having ‘the faith to get over’, or ‘needing Him each day’ – familiar themes in the Gospel pantheon. ‘This is great,’ said Salim. He seemed to have a good ear for music. A few days ago I’d given him a CDR as a present, containing music from Pakistan, Ethiopia and Thailand as well as some Sun Ra for good measure, which had apparently provided the welcome soundtrack to a qat chewing session! He had additionally developed an eye for potential record faults, and twice had spotted a hairline crack in the vinyl as I was considering a purchase.
I described to them being invited to a church in Virginia, where I’d gone on a journalistic assignment, and that how music such as this would underpin the entire service. Within Islam, only Sufism employs music in the same fashion – the majority of Muslims in Yemen are either Sunnis, or Zaydi Shias. I’ve no idea whether my description made any sense, but at any rate, the sound of this revolving black disc, churning out otherwise alien sounds was a nice backdrop to our conversation. The whole thing seemed like a neat summation of 20th Century ideologies segueing into the 21st. The ebbing shadow of Communism, quickly supplanted by the creeping threat of Islamic extremism, an expression of American Christianity sitting uneasily in the midst of it.
In the ensuing days, I spoke to Adebe a couple of times on the phone, and he confirmed that his father was sending over a small package of vinyl. It got confusing. Twice he said he had something for me, and twice he cried off at the last minute. I wasn’t sure what this meant; possibly some complex face saving exercise. I felt disorientated, unsure what the signs were telling me.
On Thursday morning, I receive a text inviting me to lunch and to check out what he had. The Community Centre boasted the nicest looking Ethiopian restaurant in Sana’a. Others I’d checked were slightly hollow affairs, sometimes selling only one or two dishes. This felt more like going to someone’s home.
When I got there, he again apologised as, due to the Eid holiday, his father hadn’t been able to send anything, but it would arrive in the coming days. I felt a little disappointed, not to mention puzzled by this odd charade, but determined to try and abate any uneasiness, underlining that it really wasn’t a problem. That fact he was willing to help at all, was greatly appreciated. Food was ordered and we chatted some more.
His story was a little complicated and I wasn’t sure I totally followed it. The youth associations sounded like charities, but for one reason or another, they had become politicised, siding with the opposition party so that he had ended up on some sort of blacklist. He’d left and had never returned, despite his parents and siblings still residing in Addis Ababa. I had heard tales of the Ethiopian government’s draconian reaction to dissent, so on the surface at least this was a plausible scenario.
Regardless of the details, the upshot is a tale replicated the world over of separation due to the unpredictable ebb & flow of politics. His family would dearly love him back, but know that it still isn’t safe, so he stays in this strange limbo, belonging to a community of sorts, but rootless. Hopefully one day he can make it back home. He was trying to make a go of a shop on the 2nd floor, selling Ethiopian VCDs, and bootleg movies.
But as we were finishing our meal, something odd happens. A man walks in with a taped up parcel and hands it to Adebe. It was suddenly a bit like being in a bad play.
I look hopefully at the parcel, and Adebe confirms that this is the promised package. Why it had suddenly arrived at this precise juncture, I never found out. It was a curious concoction – Jim Reeves, Cliff Richard, War, Tlahoun Gessesse, and three singles by the ‘Ethiopian Elvis’ Alemayehu Eshete, including, much to my surprise one of my personal favourites, ‘Ney-Ney Woleba’, a raucous piece of Ethio-funk, switching between hyperactive rock ‘n’ roll and a groove in 6/8.
I visited Addis a few years ago on an assignment for Songlines magazine, and interviewed musicians Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and Alemu Aga, the player of the ‘Harp of King David’, the begena. Even at that point vinyl artifacts from Ethiopia’s ‘Golden Age’, were not exactly easy to come by. Most of what I found came from personal collections of people I met.
Adebe apologised that there weren’t more, but this was all his father could turn up. I told him no apology was necessary, not least because of all the trouble he’d gone to in assisting me with my strange request. And what his father had found was not only excellent music, but the vinyl itself wasn’t in bad condition either. Once I get back to Bangkok, (which will give me access to a decent record player), I shall post some clips.
As I checked them on my turntable, Adebe said he’d never heard or seen vinyl, and was surprised to learn there was music on both sides. He had assumed they were like big CDs. I asked him what he thought of the music. He didn’t seem sure, opting to smile and say nothing instead.
Another mitigating factor in the scarcity of the records was the fact that, according to Adebe’s dad, the Ethiopian government was offering cash for people’s old music. Maybe it will form the basis of some sort of national archive, but who knows. We settled up and I packed away my things, as I briefly considered whether I was a preservationist or a profiteer. Whatever the reason, there would now be four less pieces for the government’s collection.
It soon became apparent to me that, though I might well find more Yemeni music bearing the east African tinge, it didn’t seem likely that I’d find any actual records from the continent. But I figured, with a sizable Ethiopian expat population here in Sana’a, I should perhaps ask around. However, as I would discover, the stories of expatriate Ethiopians, Eritreans, Tanzanians and Somalis living in Yemen are often intertwined with darker truths.
One afternoon I take a wrong turn on the way home and end up walking past a building with a sign saying ‘Ethiopian Community Centre’. Showing curiosity, I was beckoned in by the doorman, and enter a courtyard where several men are sitting around eating and chatting. Figuring this might be serendipity I go in and ask the owner if he knows of anywhere I might be able to find Ethiopian or Eritrean music. They have CDs for sale upstairs, but the idea of finding original shekla, (as vinyl is called in Amharic), sounds remote. Nevertheless, one man, Adebe, seemed to think he might be able to help, as he was sure his father has a collection of records.
We get chatting and it turns out the centre has not long been opened, although he himself had been residing in Yemen for around four years. He had left the country he told me, as he had been involved in what he termed ‘youth associations’, as well as being a member of a Pentecostal church. The implication was that he had fallen foul of the authorities and had to leave. He had endured a 36 hour boat ride from the Somali coast. In addition a friend of his had died in Somalia due to an explosion. Suddenly my requests for records, of all things, seemed pathetic and insignificant. I can’t imagine being forced to leave the UK, escaping from Plymouth in a small craft, winding up 36 hours later perhaps somewhere on the coast of western Spain, where I’d have to chance my luck, throw in my lot with other exiled Brits and attempt to build a new life for myself.
This isn’t meant to sound frivolous, as this is the regular plight of hundreds of east Africans who enter via Yemen, trying to cross the porous border into Saudi Arabia in search of work. There are of course settled communities in Yemen, and some have intermarried over time, but walk the streets awhile and you’ll notice it’s almost always young children with African features who are begging, alongside their often barefoot siblings. If you fall through the cracks here, you’ll fall very hard indeed.
A couple of days later I’m given another lead, for a place called ‘Tango Music’ not far from the Old City. I briefly entertained the fantasy that maybe this was run by a relative of Ali Tango.
Tango, following the lead of Amha Eshete, was one of the conduits for the independent Ethiopian music industry for that brief period in the 70s before the crushing quasi-Communism of Mengistu and the Derg. He was a Yemeni expat who had set up the Kaifa label and a record store, releasing key works by the likes of Mahmoud Ahmed and Hailu Mergia. If the shop in Sana’a was in any way connected with him, who knows what I might find. I was given the street name and the point of reference that it was ‘near’ the Egyptian Airlines office.
In another country, ‘near’ can take on multiple possibilities. It could be ten minutes walk, or maybe even 5 minutes drive. I plod fruitlessly up and down the busy street, almost all of the shops are locked and shuttered it still being Eid. I walk down a side street that stinks of urine and spot a sign for an Ethiopian restaurant called ‘The Merkato’. Further up, in a closed shopping mall I see the ‘Khaled Music Shop’ with tell tale Amharic script on its painted shop front. I laugh to myself.
When you DJ, playing obscure records, or impressing people with your set list so that they’ll come and ask for titles, even if it might be for sale, maybe at that precise moment people think you’re ‘cool’, the all-knowing music selector, an expert perhaps.
I can only imagine that if the same crowd could see me wandering up and down this dusty street in Sana’a, or perhaps hunched over a box in Bangkok covered in dust, or maybe even being treated with disdain trying to negotiate a good price in Ho Chi Minh what they’d think then. I suspect pity, as opposed to any sort of admiration, would be their first thought. I love record collecting – always have done, and I obviously don’t expect your sympathy. But in these moments you can sometimes feel like a fated character in a Greek myth, cursed by the gods to wander the earth searching for something that might not exist.
Bordering with Saudi Arabia, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab Peninsula, facing a potential civil war brought about by tribal skirmishes in the north, a seccessionist movement in the south, and the ever shadowy presence of Al-Qaeda in the east. Music wise one might expect it to be dominated by Arabian pop music, particularly that coming from Saudi and Egypt. But look at a map, and its western most point nearly touches the Eritrean coast. The near presence and possible influence of east Africa got me thinking that maybe here might be some little known musical hybrid, perhaps captured on vinyl or cassette. Either way it was something I’d need to investigate.
It would have been good to record my experiences tracking down music in Pakistan and Thailand in the present tense, but I never did, and can now only recall the process with the crystalisation of hindsight. I shall refer back to key episodes from both countries over the course of this blog, as well as put up sound clips.
However, five days since arriving in Sana’a, I’ve decide to write about this in real time. Maybe my searches for records will result in something, maybe they won’t. A brief correspondence with resident author Tim Mackintosh Smith suggested that I would more likely find music in the port city of Aden on the southern coast. I shall try and get down there during my stay, but for now, I wanted to see what Sana’a might hold.
The old city of Sana’a (Bab Al Yemen) is one of the most unique places on earth I’ve had the good fortune to visit. It’s unique, boxy architecture dates back around 700 years, and to walk its narrow streets brings on the feel of stepping back into another era and time altogether.
Shortly after arriving to rummage through the many antique shops, I fell into a conversation with a young man called Salim. In different cities I’ve been to there often seems to be a Salim. Young, confident, friendly and possessing a grasp of two or three European languages gleaned from constant conversations with strangers. In another place, with different opportunities, he’d probably be studying international business or linguistics, looking forward to a fiscally rewarding future. But he’s here in Yemen. So he helps at his friend’s shop, trying to drum up trade from the few tourists and aid workers that are passing through town.
I tell him what I’m looking for, and, to my surprise, he immediately says he knows a couple of shops. Quick conversations with bystanders ensue, and I’m suddenly following him up a cut through lined with shops selling antiques, knick knacks and other ephemera. I’m welcomed outside one such shop, and quickly ushered in. Sure enough, from somewhere behind the counter the owner fishes out a dusty plastic bag, stuffed with an assortment of 45s, some from Lebanon, some from India, others from Yemen, even a slightly scuffed Neil Sedaka 7”!
Eccentric as I’m sure it sounds, I never travel anywhere without my portable turntable, and it’s for such moments as this. When titles and artists are written in either Arabic, Thai or Urdu script the only test is to listen, so I quickly go through the proffered pile. There were no big surprises, but some great examples of bluesy Yemeni folk, with sombre oud, sparse percussion and a searing vocal. Too much of it was overproduced in the Saudi style, with orchestral sweeps muddying the music’s simplicity. The best, (for me at least) were the singles from the south of the country, which had more drums, and an exuberant sheen. The vocal style, particularly its crescendos, seemed more in keeping with Yemen’s neighbours to the west, as opposed to further north toward the Peninsula’s interior. Another shop I went to yielded a tin box of vinyl from a house clearance, and again, it was the simpler music stood out.
Word quickly spread that were was a foreigner looking for old Arabic records, and a small stream of teenagers were soon popping in and out of the shop I’d settled into for the afternoon, bearing piles big and small. Most were in terrible condition, and I had to gently explain that scuffs, gouges and marks wouldn’t just disappear after a brisk rub with a shirt sleeve.
The real surprise of the day was that looking round the shop I noticed they had a copy of James Brown’s ‘The Popcorn’ LP, a great instrumental record containing some of Brown’s funkiest moments. Sadly, they wanted a staggering $150 US for it, which I hastily explained I wouldn’t be prepared to pay.
Still I wondered whether the assembled crowd had even heard of the Godfather of Soul. I took my headphones out of the socket, so that the music could play out of my machine’s small built in speaker. I slipped on the LP and the shop soon filled with Brown putting his band through its paces. The young Yemenis listened grinning. It turned out they had never heard such music in their life. ‘The Popcorn’ (especially the cover bearing a close up of two nubile female thighs strutting their stuff!) seemed to get their collective thumbs up.
To be honest, as much as I love finding music, it’s moments like this that I perhaps treasure more. Getting to briefly connect with a culture, which, as an outsider, you’d never usually get to do, and finding some previously unthought of common ground.
I left the UK in October 2006, thinking that I was drawing to a close my work as a freelance musician and music journalist. I’d enjoyed moderate success with both, but the combination of hitting my thirties, the birth of my twin sons Ben & Ollie and a general fatigue brought on by constantly invoicing and chasing cheques had made me think about changing tack.
Myself and my family moved to Islamabad, Pakistan where I took up a Communications post for a local NGO. My wife had spent her formative years in Pakistan, and it was a place we both felt drawn back to since our first visit together in the late summer of 2000.
Just before I left, my friend David Hill, who I’d gotten to know whilst he was running Nuphonic, had emailed me two Ebay listings for records pressed on EMI Pakistan, and correctly suggested I should keep my eyes peeled for more of the same after my move. Of course curiousity got the better of me, and I eventually got hold of the owners of the EMI Pakistan back catalogue in Karachi, which resulted in the compilation ‘Sound of Wonder’ which was put out by Finders Keepers, the first in a series of ‘Lollywood’ reissues and an ongoing project with more planned for 2011.
After spending the following summer in the UK, visa issues and an ensuing state of emergency declared by General Musharraf had sadly made return to Pakistan impossible. Not wanting to resettle in the UK, my wife Sarah applied for a teaching position in Bangkok, and we landed in Thailand on the New Year’s Eve of 2008, jet lagged and curious.
Over the next three years I spent my spare time rifling through the various old record stores in China Town and its surrounds. This too has resulted in a compilation for Finders Keepers (‘Thai? Dai!’ – due out in early 2011), and Soundway (‘The Sound of Siam’, which should be out end of November of this year). In addition, my digging trips gave rise to ‘Paradise Bangkok’ a bi-monthly night put on with my friend and DJ partner Maft Sai, who runs ZudRangMa.
Occasionally I would tell friends about my various trips around Bangkok, as well as to Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar in the search for elusive music, and it’s as a result of their comments and encouragement that I decided to document this experience in the form of a blog.
I’m not sure how I feel about blogs. For sure, I’ve never subscribed to one, so I suppose it’s with a certain amount of presumption that I start my own.
The other catalyst for this though, is the fact that I’ve just travelled to a new place. Again, it’s work related (I now work as a consultant for international development organisations – I say this merely to outline that I don’t get to flit round the globe in the endless search for obscure records for a living!), and, like Pakistan, it now seems to be appearing in the news for all the wrong reasons. For me, the country is a blank slate, and I realised before I embarked how little I knew about it. What, then, should I expect to find in Yemen?