From civil uprisings to insect nests, crate-digger Frank Gossner's love of rare West African funk took him to some strange places. This is an extended version of his article in the October issue of Dazed & Confused; for the complete day-by-day story, read his blog Voodoo Funk.
I'm a DJ without any skills, so the only way for me to shine is to have records that nobody else has. In the summer of 2005, my wife was offered a job in Conakry, the capitol of Guinea. I was tired of Berlin and the shitty German weather, and her job paid more than enough for the both of us, so why not go somewhere where it's warm all year? "But what are you going to do with yourself all day?" my wife wanted to know.
I ended up doing what i always knew best: Buying records. You might think that that's not a job but believe me, in West Africa, it's pretty hard work.
My first source in Guinea was Mr. Mafa's record store. Mr. Mafa owned a small record store housed inside an old shipping container that someone had dumped next to the Marché Niger. I've spent countless afternoons with him, browsing through his entire stock. Mr. Mafa's store was also a great place to meet other local music lovers and we were often sat on his little wooden bench, drinking coke and chatting about West African Bands. It was interesting to hear how bands like Poly Rythmo from Benin had been real superstars in the 70s, touring the entire region from Senegal to Cameroon.
However, Mr. Mafa's store found a sad but however typical end only one year after my arrival in Conakry. For a few weeks, special police dressed all in black took to the streets after nightfall and painted red crosses on houses and stores that were build illegally and too close to the road. After a week or two, they came back with trucks, automatic weapons, clubs, whips made off power lines and car-mounted machine guns. Shacks, houses and businesses got looted, torn down and the rubble looted again by crowds of impoverished children who followed the mob in hope of perhaps finding something edible or of any other use.
Mr. Mafa's store also had received a blood red X. In his case even paying off the authorities wouldn't have been an option - he was located on one of the hotspots where new houses for "real" businesses were destined to be built and so he tore down his place himself before anybody else could. We remained friends and I continued visiting Mr. Mafa at his home. With his store gone, he spent a great deal of his time tracking down more and more records for me and even now that I'm living in NYC, he remains one of my best suppliers of Guinean and Malian vinyl.
My first digging trip outside of Guinea led me to Sierra Leone. My friend Amadou had grown up in the the country's capital Freetown until he had to flee one night in 1999 when the rebels took the city by storm. One of Amadou's friends had told us to search for "old sailors". He explained how it had always been the sailors who brought the new records to town. They were traveling up and down the West African coast, buying records in the harbors of Lagos, Cotonou and Abidjan, the cities with pressing plants, and selling them to local record stores and nightclubs once they got back to Freetown.
After a lot of asking around in town, we met a young man named Zico who told us he knew just the man we were looking for, an old sailor with a vast collection of records. Zico led us away from the chaos of downtown Freetown, down a narrow road with deep cracks in its tar that lead towards a narrow bridge with a stream below, lined with women doing their laundry. For the last few yards before the bridge, the edges of the road zigzagged towards its center, almost reaching the middle. Someone had painted the outline of the remaining tar white to minimize the danger of falling down into the water when walking after dark.
On the other side, Zico led us into a neighborhood of old wooden housesfrom colonial times, and after a while we entered a narrow gate in a sheet iron fence which gave way into a small community of shacks and one story houses. A labyrinth of pathways led us past old women preparing food in front of their houses and girls fixing each other's hair. On the other side, we exited again through another door and afterhalf a block, entered into a backyard where we found Mr. Abu Deen Kamara sitting in front of his one storey house.
Mr. Kamara was old - hard to tell what age exactly - his eyes were slightly fogged as if someone had poured a few drops of milk into them. Zico had already called him on his cellphone and the old man explained to us with pride how he had always taken good care of his records and that they would all be in excellent condition. Mr. Kamara disappeared into his house while his neighbours offered me a wooden chair. I sat down and set up the portable record player on the three feet high tile-covered wall surrounding a water well. Instantly, we were joined by several children and a group of women who sat down for their meal in front of the house next door, eyeing us with curiosity.
Kamara carried out the first box of 45s. Most of them really were in great shape, many even with intact color sleeve. I found Docteur Nico's Garage Funk Bomb "Sookie" on 45, pressed much louder than the LP version and a full minute and one insane drum/conga break longer. The fact that this beast was recorded in Kongo in 1968 still blows my mind.
Another highlight was the Ghanaian band Cobra with "Wari-Wa", one of the heaviest afrobeat tracks I've ever heard, Fela's incredible and super-rare "Beautiful Dancer" 45 and my first copy of the Rock Town Express LP.
Sierra Leone is still recovering from one of the bloodiest civil wars the world has seen in the late 1990s. Most lamp posts are riddled with bullet holes. You see a lot of evil looking scars on people and there are many amputees. Living conditions haven't improved since the end of the war. During the years that I visited, there was still no electricity and no running water in most houses. But the country is at peace and peace is the most important commodity, as we learned ourselves in 2007 when violence erupted in the streets of Conakry.
A general strike turned bloody when the president's son, a notorious drug addict as well as trafficker and high-ranking soldier, commanded his elite unit of "special rangers" to open fire on unarmed protesters. We weren't able to leave our house for weeks. There was intense shooting all over town, the government imposed martial law and acurfew. Most foreign embassies began evacuating their personnel. We didn't want to leave our three adopted dogs behind to starve to death so we couldn't leave by plane like everybody else.
Instead we took the car and headed for the "Conakry-Freetown Highway" which in fact is nothing but a wide dirt road with potholes that could swallow a small vehicle. After 8 hours and a good dozen of military road blocks manned with soldiers in varying degrees of intoxication, and having had machine gun barrels pointed in our faces on more than one occasion, we had reached the border to Sierra Leone and were greeted by a border patrol with "Welcome to Sierra Leone, we are a peaceful country!"
I guess my favorite country in the region is Benin. During my first stay in Cotonou, I took a bush taxi about 70 miles up north to Bohicon. After asking around town for a few hours, a moto-taxi driver told me he'd know some places where I could find records. The first spot was at a store that sold cassette tapes, records as well as radios and all other sorts of electronic equipment. The records were in two large wooden boxes that also contained swarms of large cockroaches and silverfish. Most paper sleeves had been eaten away partially by insects. The closer we got to the bottom, the lesser intact the sleeves and the thicker the bug droppings in between the records. The air was thick with dust and and dark layers of dirt and bug excrement started to cake onto my hands and lower arms.
Once I had looked through everything, the owner of the records store accompanied us on his moped to the house of a very old man who had somewhite medicine smeared all over his body and was only covered aroundthe waist by a single piece of cloth. The record store owner went into the next room and returned, one after the other, with three very large wicker baskets that were stuffed with stacks of LPs and 45s. The records on top were in really nice shape but digging deeper, I realised that at one point, thankfully long before our visit, the baskets had also served as a home to some sort of larger insect. The animals had chewed away almost all cover sleeves right up to the records, leaving round layer cakes of vinyl, paper and cardboard. I found a few records where even small amounts of vinyl had been gnawed off by those eager little critters.
Things got really rough when I hit the bottom of the last basket that contained mostly 45s: the insects had built chambers and tunnels inbetween the records, using a red, clay-like substance that consisted of chewed up record sleeves, earth and hornet spittle. To make things even more bizarre, large pieces of insect shells were baked into the thick, red crust.
Back at the hotel in Cotonou and after I had cleaned up all of the records in the bathroom sink, I was relieved that almost all of them turned out to play nicely. Amongst the most mind blowing finds of that day were various Poly Rythmo 45s on the Albarika Store label, some even with intact picture sleeves and the rarest Poly Rythmo LP ALS005 with Vincent Ahehehinnou.
I returned to Benin over a dozen times. Sometimes, I literally had todig through dirt but I often found stacks of perfectly preserved records that - besides the water damage, mostly unavoidable in West Africa after dozens of monsoon seasons - were in sometimes miraculously good condition. The huge musical output of this tiny country still baffles me, and on every trip I kept finding records that I had previously not known existed. I also got to meet several of the musicians responsible for these incredible recordings, like Gustave Bentho from Poly Rythmo or the fabulous El Rego who just celebrated his 50th anniversary on stage. These encounters were at least as valuable to me as the rarest records I ever found.
From October 9, Frank Gossner plays every Thursday at Santas House Party in New York. Below is the trailer for Leigh Iacobucci's forthcoming documentary.