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?”
“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.