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.