You Can’t Always Get What You Want…
It’s nice to be back in Sana’a again, although returning again to anywhere, you realize that the blank slate anticipation that accompanied you the first time has been replaced with expectation and a search for familiarity. I’m looking forward to seeing and experiencing certain things again, and am perhaps no longer as surprised by spectacles that caught my eye back in November. So, when I stepped outside of my front door and looked down the street to see a group of young men in red and white keffiyehs getting into an SUV, with AK-47s casually slung over their shoulders like shopping bags, I initially didn’t bat an eyelid. Something that might have caused alarm almost anywhere else (even Pakistan) didn’t at all seem out of place here. Chances are they were tribesmen, or the bodyguard detail for a wealthy local as opposed to militants, but still it’s surprising what you end up getting used to.
Needless to say, one of the things that I was certainly anticipating was the chance to rummage through the Old City to see if I could turn up any more vinyl gems, so I texted Salim the day after I landed. He called an hour later, welcoming me back to Sana’a and assuring me that some new stock had been turned up. It was nice to wander again through its narrow streets, dodging past jewelry hawkers, henna sellers sat crossed legged on the ground and the smells of incense, grilled meat and the sweet sting of qat. It was good also to see Salim and his crew, and after a round of handshakes, the search began.
The first shop turned out to be one I’d checked back in November, but for some reason never returned to. The owner dug out a small pile of 45s from inside a cupboard. Records are never on display here – they always seem to be dug out from a back room, from a small bag under a counter, or, in one instance, from a hole in the roof of the shop! There were a number of nice 7s in the proffered pile, the stand out being a vocal track, accompanied by a clanging, metallic rhythm beaten out on a copper tray, or sahn nuhasi, a tradition specific to Yemen. The unique percussion leant the track an otherworldly drone. I’ll post it up here when I return to Bangkok.
After a couple of other stores, we settled on what would be the final stop of the day. It all started promisingly enough. To mine and Salim’s surprise the owner pulled out a large box packed with 45s, all in brand new, unplayed condition. It turned out it was the old stock from a shop in Taiz, near the Red Sea port of Mocha.
Musically, I had picked better examples from other sellers, but the fact that they were in such pristine condition was unprecedented. All was going well until I’d made my selection and we started to discuss the cost. Citing a customer from Bahrain who had been happy to part with $30 USD per record, he wanted to know if I’d be willing to pay the same price. Naturally I said no, as this was much more than what I’d paid elsewhere – it seemed unreasonable. After some bargaining and a call to the boss, the best he could offer was $20. I purchased just one and left. It was all amicable enough, but just a tad awkward.
It seemed a shame to leave the rest, but I knew I wasn’t prepared to meet his price. Here was the most ridiculous of scenarios – a man with apparently over 1000 records, no means to play them, and an odd take on business acumen. He was like a character in a parable.
Maybe he’ll change his mind, maybe he won’t. Salim said he’d go back to speak to him again, as well as check a couple more contacts. He was annoyed at the exchange and apologized, but I tried to reassure him it was no big deal. It all goes into the pot of experiences, one way or the other. Off to Aden tomorrow – a port city for the Arab Peninsula and part of the old trade route for the British East India Company had to have something interesting stashed away in its awkward corners.