Would You Buy Your Past?


We now have bluetooth and microwaves we can control using our phones yet we continue to crane our necks looking back at the past. The allure of the past seems to seduce us, keeping us enticed. We listen to soul music, we wear afro wigs and fashion – if you look around – continues to suffer from the hangover of the past. We want old vintage cars with a clutch and manual gears. Hell, push-to-start ignition is back. As brighter and more imaginative people stay up burning the famous midnight oil to make our lives better with technology, we still longingly look back at the old. We desire age. We can’t let go. The past is a temptress with a comforting shadow that grows longer with time.

Our past seems to catch up with us in adulthood. At a glance it seems that we want things from the past but in essence it’s the memories we seek. We want to feel what being young felt like. All of us. We want to go back to the time when we knew less because that came with audacity, courage, a backbone. And this is why I have been looking for that courage in music, in a vinyl turntable to be precise. Those old, old ones that smell of the 70s, made by the hands of men, not the jerky arms of technology.

Three years ago I went to interview some guy for a magazine article and this contraption I speak of was sitting there in the corner of his study. He was one of those trusting people who leave strangers alone in their living room confident that they will not touch anything. I’m the kind of stranger who touches things when left alone in a room. Since I’m not the serious kind of journalist who writes questions down the previous night in preparation, I didn’t have anything to pore over as I waited so I walked over and ran my hand over the formica body. She was an old hag with a great deal of personality left. She had had many years of singing in her lungs but she still looked ready to belt a tune if challenged.

I pushed the bottom edge in and out rolled a stainless steel radio from the 70s, the type with big-knob dials. As I bent over studying her closely my subject entered the room, toweling his hands. (OCD?) “It was my uncle’s,” he explained, not offering a handshake (Definitely OCD). “He was a football and music fanatic. Nothing meant more to him than football and music.”

“How did he die?”

He was standing next to me and we stared down at this vinyl player, like it was a casket holding the remains of his uncle.

“When Franco came to Kisumu in 1986 they couldn’t contain the crowd, everybody wanted to get into the stadium even though it was already full to capacity. People came from as far as Uganda and Tanzania to watch the maestro. My uncle came all the way from Voi. So what they did was they pushed down the wall of the stadium and gained entry. My uncle was in the meleé and he broke his leg which later got complicated, never healed and he died not long after.”

“Break a leg,” I mumbled.


“I was just thinking, of that expression, ‘break a leg’. Maybe while leaving for the concert someone told him to break a leg and that’s exactly what he did.”

He chuckled at the gallows humour. He was in his 6os but with the energy of a fawn. (That’s a young deer. Don’t be hard on yourself, even I didn’t know until I googled it). He shuffled over to the wooden cabinet and retrieved an LP which he wiped slowly using a special maroon silk cloth. He then looked at that record like you would look at your newborn baby; with a mixture of admiration and anxiety. His hands trembled as he delicately put the record on the platter and then swang the tonearm on the rotating grooves. There was that brief moment when the music was yet to start, that sound of small popcorns popping, a static from a different time, then this heady intoxicating piano filled his house; a sustained stinging piano, sharp but not piercing, a thin string of sound that might have been strong enough to hang clothes from. Then a smooth bluesy voice started singing and we stood there in a trance. Okay, I stood there in a trance, he just stood there like a big pillar of a man.

I could smell him standing next to me; something soapy, something with fresh froth. A moment later he turned to me.

“Do you know who that is?”

I didn’t know who that was – but they didn’t sound like someone who was still alive. “DeBarge,” he said, folding the white towel in a tight ball. (DeBarge were like the Jackson Five, only less cool). “I was in university in Delaware, doing my masters, working in a carwash and a diner, sending money back home to educate my siblings and to build my mother a home in the village,” he started talking to the player. “We lived in a mud house, and I was the first one in my village and numerous villages to get onto a plane. I was also the first one to go university, leave alone the States.” He lowered himself into a chair next to the player, one of those decorative-looking chairs that you aren’t sure are meant for sitting. “Winters were tough for a man from an African village, tougher when you had to work daily in a carwash and a restaurant and sometimes an old car yard, but that was what men did; we worked all the time and when we weren’t working we were studying because we knew where we came from and where we came from poverty waited. So we sent money to our wives who were taking care of our children back home. We were what you younger generation now call absentee fathers. Are you a father?”

“Yes,” I said.

“When we got a small window between work and school we would sleep,” he continued without acknowledging that I was a father. Not that I wanted a medal, I hoped he would ask me how old they are, or even if I like them then I would have to tell him about Tamms and how secretive and aloof she is. Oh well. “I would work for 16 hours on some days and back in my cramped apartment which I shared with a Ghanaian friend, we would often lie in bed while trying to catch sleep and we would play music from our motherland to fill this void of constant toil and loneliness in the white man’s land. We listened to Fela, Franco, Makeba, Farka Toure, Brenda Fassie, Sunny Ade…do you know these people?”

“Some of them, yeah.”

“Which ones do you know?” he asked like he didn’t believe me.

“My father listened to Franco. I know Brenda Fassie and Fela Kuti.”

He regarded me with his hooded eyes like a doctor would look at a pesky boil that keeps coming back. Then he continued. “ Music from our continent made life bearable. Those little moments where we could lie on our backs and try to sleep, we filled with music because we were homesick and America was unkind and unforgiving and cold, but what choice did we have?”

He looks at me and I realise that his last statement wasn’t a rhetorical question. He needed an answer! This old man!

“You had no choice,” I said obediently because sometimes I have to lie low like an envelope to get a story. I’m a whore for a good yarn. “I have over 300 records from that era alone. It was an interesting time…” he struggles to stand up because he’s a bit overweight. He then walks back to the cabinet whereupon he opens a drawer full of records. He comes back with a record and just looks at it, turning it over, his lips moves as he reads all the song titles on them.

“We didn’t think we would come back and when we did, when I did, because some of my friends never made it back,” he continues. “When I got back I looked at my son who I had left at 2-months old and he was already a young man, reaching my shoulder and I didn’t know how to be his father and I’m sure he didn’t know how to relate to me as a son. I didn’t know how to start loving my wife again. Or how to live again.” He then sinks into silence.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

He looked up at me and I was a bit intimidated by his stare to honest, but I had already made my bed so I asked. “Did you have moments that you would break down and cry in that miserable apartment of yours?” He grinned at me, making me feel like a child who just asked where the sun goes to when it disappears behind the hill. He didn’t answer me. That generation of men never cried. It was a weakness. He simply put the new album on and we listened to it in silence. I thought that maybe I had offended him and he would call off the interview. Instead he looked at my phone recorder and asked, “Is that thing on?” I said it was. “Well, all that I have said is off the record, you can’t use that in the interview.

I said, “Why, it’s a beautiful story about your past.”
“It’s a personal story,” he said.
“Yeah,” I pressed, “it also humanises you, people like to read such things – the open wound of humanity.”
“No, leave that out,” he said with the finality of someone who isn’t used to being challenged.
“Now,“ he got to his feet, “where do you want to conduct this interview, will the terrace be okay? Do you want some tea? Hellenaaa!” he bellowed. (Helena was the Help). He then killed the music, closed the top and just like that we we shut out the 70s with its angsty memories of cold tit America. On my way out – after a rather dry interview full of clipped soundbites and clichés – I looked at the vinyl player and thought of the stories that it would evoke from him. I would have loved nothing better than for him to place albums of his choice on it and tell me the memories that come with them. Imagine just how raw that would be.

He would say things like, “This song reminds me when the apartment heater wasn’t working. It was the winter of 1979, one of the coldest years. It was Christmas and we were marooned in our houses because the roads were closed. We huddled in the living room with all of our clothes on, playing a boardgame and listening to this record. It was me, my Ghanian roommate and a girl from Uganda and another from Cameroon.”

I’d butt in. “Which one was yours?”

He’d glare and ask, “What!?”

“Which one was yours, the Cameroonian or the Ugandan?”

Then he’d be so pissed he’d stop the record player and ask. “ How old are you, Biko?”

“40 and a month. Why, do I look younger?”

Then he’d stare me down for a long while and I’d not look away. Finally he’d start playing his record again and continue. “So anyway, there we were in that frozen living room….”


Isn’t that a story you’d love to read?

My father – like most fathers – owned a vinyl player too. It was one of those things you were not allowed to touch because it had a needle and that needle could break and if that needle broke because of you then your body would not be found. A teetotaller, he was always home by 6pm and all he did was listen to his rhumba and country music. There was the Commodores album that now reminds me of this rugby guy called Jack who lived in the same flats as we did. In my young mind he represented independence. He was a teacher, he played rugby and he had a live-in girlfriend – a tall svelte girl with a big ‘fro. We would see them drinking beer…(beer!) together in a nearby bar. We all had a crush on his chick and we would fight to be sent for cigarettes by her because her coins always smelled of perfume and we would walk to the shop smelling those coins. They constantly played the Commodores, if I remember right. We would remove our shoes to deliver the cigarettes to their house that had more music than furniture. Everything there smelled of cigarettes and my mother thought it was the devil’s house because his chick smoked and wore small shorts and drunk beer. (Beer!) My mom loved Jack though, because he was charming and well spoken and educated. Jack, I heard, later died of AIDS when everybody was dying of AIDS. I don’t know what happened to his flower. She must be in her mid 50’s now.

I have been looking for a vinyl player for a while now. The antique ones, not these new ones that they make in Dubai. Old record players that have passed through old hands and withered times. I asked my friend who owns one and she said “I will help you get one if you help me get a man.” People think I have a storeful of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead.

“Go see Jimmy at Kenyatta Market,” she said. So I went.

To beat a path to Jimmy’s door, you have to swat away people trying to sell you meat. Which made me wonder if Jimmy gets a lot of vegetarian customers visiting him. Once in his shop you could as well be in 1973. It has that sagging personality from the 70s, the chutzpah of an era. We – my friend Jonah and I – found Jimmy holding his head at his desk in the corner (I think sometimes when you read the news you get a headache) reading the Sunday paper. He had on a bohemian newsboy cap and a peppered beard. His shop is the museum of music. There were vinyls hanging from the roof, stacks of them in a corner, old wooden record players, Phillips, National, an old vintage Canon camera, a golf club, an old rotary phone that I’m sure if I called someone would answer.






“Yes! Go ahead.”

“Who is this?”

“You called me, who are you?”



“Biko. Where is that?”

“Are you looking for someone?”

“No, I…I just called a number and you picked. Where is that?”

“This is the Queen’s protectorate.”


“No, Tsavo. Listen we are busy, we have a railway to finish.”



“Standard Gauge Railway.”

“I don’t know what you are on about, lovie.”

“Don’t call me lovie! I’m not your love.”

“Oh well, aren’t you a feisty little thing?”

“I’m not a th-, listen, you are building the railway?”

“Uhm yes, do you live in a cave? And lions are eating us out here… Okay, not us, just the Africans and the Indians.”

“That is racist, what, you are too tasty for lions?”

“Racist?” Chortles. “ You are a laugh, lovie.”

“Okay, wait, what year is this?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No really…”

“Well, where we are, in the middle of this bloody African jungle it’s 1898.”

“No shit! It’s 2018, here!”

“Haha. You must be off your face early in the morning, lovie.”

“Will you please stop calling me lovie!”

I told Jimmy what I wanted; an antique record player that doesn’t take too much space. I told him I didn’t want something shouty or modern. I didn’t want anything with an FM radio, just AM. He showed me a few pieces, which didn’t tickle my fancy. There was a Philips which was so big you could turn it into a kennel. There was a very small one that looked like a woman had thrown it from the second floor screaming, “Take your stupid shit from my house and never come back here, I hate you!” There were some that needed restoration.There was a sexy Grundig that was going for 300K which – obviously – I didn’t have. Jonah heard the price and I could tell what he was doing a quick calculation on how many bags of cement that was.

I perused his music collection, listened to some albums, read the numerous newspaper cuttings pasted on the wall written about him and then we swatted away the knife-carrying meat sellers, ducked under plumes of smoke of charred cow and left the market.

Maybe Jimmy will read this and think, “Ah, he wants it that bad, I will reduce the price.” Maybe he will find something within my price range as promised. Something that comes with its own history, something that comes with a family heirloom. An inheritance. A family heritage. Something someone will feel bad letting go, like giving away a blind family pet.

I know exactly where it will go in my digs. I know how the sun will hit it from the window. I know that from it I will listen to a lot of Motown and my father’s kind of Rhumba because we all eventually turn into our fathers, don’t we? I know that will hurtle me furiously down memory lane. If I listen to a song that reminds me of my mother maybe I will tear, maybe I will be strong. And just for shits and giggles I will also buy an old pipe and stick it in my mouth some days as I listen to something older than me. I will not light the said pipe, because, well, I don’t smoke, but I will want that pipe in my mouth as a metaphor and I know I will think of something very old; a fragment of my childhood, a splinter of my past because when you get a vinyl recorder you are not buying music, you are buying your past and many other pasts.

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    1. Is 1st to comment vintage? Coz i think this vibe is so 1970. But then again, maybe you’re trying to connect with your past 😀 Remember back in lower school how you’d be seated in between a bunch of girls, lift your hand up during question time and only the girls get selected? Neglect! 🙂 We see you now buddy!

      1. Theopisty was well fed that afternoon, a very rare occurrence in a boarding school…that is why of all days, he dozed off during a Double Maths (in the days when those who attended a Double Maths in the afternoon should have qualified for a hardship allowance); when Theo ambled out of his sweet nap, he knew something was amiss-because the Double-Maths Lady Teacher was asking him sarcastically (which, when one is in that state cannot register) ‘…and what is the answer Theopisty?’ His desk mate whispered helpfully to Theo, ‘Ugali, Ugali’. And in that stupor, like a day dreamer, Theo blurted, ‘Ugali Madam, Ugali’…and immediately the Class roared with laughter. We all noticed Theo for the reminder of our days in high school. The Lady Teacher too, no doubt. Will we notice first commenters?

  1. Finally, a post for old school music lovers. I hope you get the player…if he has two then let me know. Try playing some Billy Holliday, or Ella Fitzgerald on it. I enjoyed this one Biko.

    1. I love Ella Fitzgerald.The one constant in my playlist over the years has been her ‘summertime’. When i have my first child i will lull her over the song and hope to God she will love it as much.

  2. I have read so many of Bikos and I love that he writes as has a unique flow of the subconscious. I like that you put on paper the voices as they speak to your mind. I have particularly loved this piece because I see my father in it. He keeps newspapers as old as 1964, he has minutes of meetings held in the early 60s. He has taught me about collecting so yes I would definitely by my past and all the pasts.

  3. I know too which under which window you will place it Lovie; The “bird watching window”. So one day you will be sitting in a vintage rock chair with a pipe in your mouth, listening to a song that reminds you of your mum thus tearing. Just for the kicks, Tamms will be this big lady close to her dad and she will hate to see him cry. Her face will e smeared by her now spoilt makeup. A bird across the apartment will cross your line of sight. And all the sadness will evaporate.

  4. i was also looking for one to gift to my parents,theirs was stolen when we were kids and was replaced by these modern cd players. blegh! they have so many records , from begees, to pointer sisters and cool and the gang among so many other singers that even i dont know of…Such an awesome collection.those things are such an elusive find.
    Biko you know you have a short attention span,you will get bored easily and with your kids it will sooner or later be destroyed in a sibling fight.Just gift it to Simon and his new bride, it will probably mean more to him.

  5. Looking back at my past i wouldn’t change it except bringing back to life my grandparents. I am not proud of everything i did but life is bitter sweet. If i went back i would like to perfect everything but i like imperfection and uncertainty ,the adventures of Life.

    I have lost count of how many times i received a beating from my mother because of touching things when left alone in a room. Now that am all grown up i wonder if i would get a free pass from her or a piercing stare that says, Thank your stars you are all grown up.

    1. Hahaha, the number of want to know’s here are equally proportional to the eligible men not found, i presume! The boy child needs to do something here 😀 😀

  6. Because when you when you get a vinyl recorder you are not buying music, you are buying your past and many other pasts.
    That got me!!

  7. Aha, That convo!!
    My old man had that vinyl in the digs sometimes back. In his room where just enough rays would shine on it for some few minutes before noon. Some ugly contraption.
    My big bro who went to study in India told him it would fetch lotsa money if he sold.
    We never saw it again. That and the good old wooden Sanyo TV Set.

  8. I loved how you paused on the towel, then later came back to it to finalize a past, like nothing just happened. And that guy wasted an amazing life moment- his really life-story.

  9. Like these ‘Push to drive’ cars I’d buy my past. There is nothing about my past that I would like to leave out, I’d want to go back to all the places I’ve been, meet everyone I’ve met so far and achieve and fail as I have.
    I would want to go through it one more time, it’s been a great ride.

    Yes, I’d buy my past.

  10. “People think I have a storeful of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead.”
    This cracked me up Biko….awesome piece. And yes reminiscing is kinda part of or daily lives… what I pick out of it…lessons learnt and how to try and make my future better.

    And might I add I have picked up some vocalubary…chortle….hurtle….chutzpa…melee

  11. My Dad was a huge music lover… I was around music loads till he died… I feel sad that his record player and all that music wasn’t kept well…. We were too young to see the importance…. They landed in an attic and later thrown after they were destroyed…. I remember my Music teacher in primary was always really impressed at the songs I knew word for word…. We listened to music all the time….

  12. how comes there are no comments today?I am a fan of this blog but the quiet ones ,I guess today is my day.keep informing and entertaining us .Am old school so I recall the Debarge,Atlantic stars ,Cool n the gang.nice stuff.

  13. Sad how he didn’t tell about the records and the stories they told. Urrgh!
    We millenials sure got a feel of old school music paraphernalia.
    Thanks Biko!

  14. I love music and intend to get a record player as well, my grandma had one. ION do you have a store full of men? asking for a friend. And yes i would buy my past.

  15. If anyone pays 300k for a vinyl record it should come with a massage option. My old man used to listen to Jim Reeves and Scott somebody. Those songs take me back to the 90s when I was young running through the forest and open field tending livestock without a worry in the world. I want to buy back the past.

    1. Me too. My parents have one.haven’t checked if it still works. Will find out this weekend. It takes me way back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.and yes.,I would definitely buy the past if I could.

    2. Jim Reeves! My dad so loved him too. Your comment took me back to “Across the Bridge” and how we would use a pen to rewind the cassette so it’d keep playing. His other favorite was some TZ choir. Kwaya ya Uhai Mjini or something close to that.

  16. “People think I have a store full of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead.”
    If you consider having one..kindly remember us.Thank you

  17. Death ends a life but never does it end a relationship once treasured. I have a nokia 3310 in mint condition. Everytime i hold it, i envision my father and his astute perspective on life.

  18. People think I have a storeful of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead.
    This cracked me up !

  19. People think I have a storeful of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead……..well do you?
    directions to jimmy’s place maybe i will find my Pa’ that needle for his radiogram

  20. I thought I was the only one looking for vintage stuff…….I need a record player too. Specifically a Philips. Anyone having it out there?

    1. I have a philips with no needle from my dad(because I’m the self appointed custodian of all things vintage in my house)I’m not sure I’d want to dispose it though because I enjoy collecting vintage stuff and art.
      I hope to open an art gallery some day where I can entertain guests over high tea ,dinners,cocktails and such like stuff

  21. There was a very small one that looked like a woman had thrown it from the second floor screaming, “Take your stupid shit from my house and never come back here, I hate you!”………loloLOL

  22. My father had his records too. I remember the likes of Ofege, Kool and The gang, Fela, and the best of all Uprising by Bob Marley!

  23. Wow! I love this one! He regarded me with his hooded eyes like a doctor would look at a pesky boil that keeps coming back….seriosly Biko!! 🙂

    Meanwhile, I came across a vinyl player my dad used to own those days! I have kept it well and I need to have it checked – or rather repaired. Can this guy – the Jimmy guy fix them? Or rather where else in Nairobi can we have these vinyl players repaired??

    Otherwise, very nice article!! Looking forward to the next one..

  24. My Old Man only used to purchase Lingala….the character would land from Nairobi (no, he did not fly, bussing was the mode) and the very time he came with a new album and a new set of batteries (they used to be called dry cells)…which would play all the juice out of that album. I knew almost all Franco Albums. Interesting past.

  25. The reason reading this today is so weird is because I am reading it just after learning of Hugh Masekela’s passing. I attended the 2016 Safaricom Jazz concert that he graced us with. I had heard of his music before, but I was a kid and I did not like it. His was a brand of music that my folks used to float around the house whenever the felt like hogging the radio. And somehow when attending that concert, I remember how it reminded me of my mom’s Akai that she trained us to call Thum. A vinyl player. I have asked her to give me that thing, she has refused. And now more than ever, I want it more. You have reminded me of how badly I wanted it.


  26. Biko . My dad has a Friend who has a vinyl. You should see them dance to the records when they have there meeting once every month with the five couples. The penta firm group, you will love it. Oooh I would definitely buy my past. Such nostalgia

  27. Oh we do get a headache when we read the news… It’s impossible not to to get a headache when you read the news. Unless you’re well, not reading the news

  28. I am a very misguided boy who enjoys taunting and torturing others. I would say that I am the best among the rest. It is just when I resort to that, it comes out as ingrained behaviour. Evil things. You know what they say about habits.

  29. If I get to buy, it would have to be 2, one to replace the one I broke down when I was young, and another mine, to finish what I had started. I grew up thinking I paid for the brocken vinyl player with the beating I received after the accident (of me opening it to see what is in there), but now I know better. I stole papa’s style, and his link to his youth. It would be superb to buy one for him, I joins the hunt…

  30. ” I asked my friend who owns one and she said “I will help you get one if you help me get a man.” People think I have a storeful of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead. “<—–Hehehe! This is hilarious.

    My dad owned a record player. On special days he would whip it out and feed us an awesome diet of The Carpenters, The Everly Brothers, Skeeter Davis and that yodeling fella, Hank Williams. He had this maroon box full of records that had this really unique scent that I have never forgotten. So one by one, we would sift through the records and play them till the batteries died, and the needle dragged sluggishly till the music died off. I would totally buy that back… with an electric player this time.

  31. Nice piece.. funny that 70s’s cold & lonely America is still the same to many esp newbies. They should call this place “ColdRatRace”

  32. And yes, I would buy one of the vinyl players.
    Actually, am looking for one…my old man won’t let me touch his, though it’s broken!

    And yes, I would buy my past, too. Yes, I would! Gladly.

  33. People think I have a storeful of men where I lock eligible men, feeding them on hummus and carrot juice and throwing in a dumbell once in awhile so that they keep taut for the task ahead.

  34. My father – like most fathers – owned a vinyl player too. It was one of those things you were not allowed to touch because it had a needle and that needle could break and if that needle broke because of you then your body would not be found.

    My dad also had a vinyl player and he used to listen to Jim Reeves every evening. Our most memorable times were during Christmas when he used to play the Twelve Christmas Songs by Jim Reeves the hole day. Unfortunately the needle broke and to date he is still trying to find one. Could this Jimmy guy be selling the needles so that I buy one for my dad as a birthday gift next month?

  35. This post found me. I have been listening to “Zilizopendwa” the whole day. And also some Rhumba. The likes of “Sina Makosa” song. Such an amazing feeling. The funny thing is I’m just 20 years old and I can say that today’s music is incomparable to the swinging 60s to 90s.