James Rugami. Nairobi’s Vinyl King


James Rugami. Nairobi’s Vinyl King

Like the story of vinyl, the story of James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami never gets old. An equivalent of a music curator, the merchandise in Jimmy’s store is the kind to be treasured, priceless relics if you appreciate the fine things in life but a pile of old junk if you are on the other side of the fence, where the latest tech toys out of Oriental factories hold sway. 

It is easy to find Jimmy’s shop. When you reach the section of Kenyatta Market where nyama choma is sold in plenty out of little kiosks, simply ask for the shop of ‘Jimmi wa Rekodi’. All the meat sellers know him, same to the taxi drivers and the tens of saloonists.

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Old 45” singles issued by labels that have long closed shop hang from strings on the roof down the corridor, pointing you towards Jimmy’s shop. It is a marketing gimmick. As Jimmy later tells me, kids who are more accustomed to modern digital file-sharing formats usually wander into the market and get fascinated by the strange discs hanging on the roof and, out of curiosity, come into the shop to find out what they are and what they contain. They are usually the most fascinated of his visitors. Often, they end up buying a record to take home as a memento, even if they can’t play it on their home stereo!

When Jimmy finished Form Four at Gatanga Boys (now Kirwara Boys) School in 1980 he moved to Meru town, hawking small consumables for a living. By 1982 Jimmy had saved up enough to open a small shop. But then the future record man quickly realized he wasn’t keen on spending the rest of his life trading in bread and measures of sugar over a counter.  For certain, Jimmy was angling for something bigger, something that was not common in Meru town. The music bug of his native Gatanga was stirring in his veins. Gatanga, his home village, is where most of Central Kenya benga musicians hail from. It was at this point that Jimmy realized there was only one music shop in Gakoromone Market in Meru, and saw a gap.

A decision was made. He was going to venture into the record business.

With his savings from hawking, Jimmy bought his first stock of vinyl and cassettes from River Road and opened the town’s second music store. But that wasn’t enough; even higher things were beckoning. He wanted to do more than just sell music over a counter. He decided to become a DJ, starting off with a three-in-one Resin record player.  

“I didn’t buy that record player,’’ Jimmy tells me when I pay him a visit at his shop. ‘‘I tricked my elder brother into giving it to me. Since it wasn’t working, he told me to take it.”

The inquisitive Jimmy quickly figured out what was wrong with his brother’s turntable; a broken stylus, which he had repaired by a local fundi. Unknown to Jimmy, diagnosing what was faulty with that old turntable and having it fixed correctly was the harbinger to what would later define his career.

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As a DJ, Jimmy’s specialty was benga and rumba, which were popular in dancehalls and open-air dances and disco-matangas. This specialization guaranteed Jimmy a steady flow of clients, including the army barracks in Nanyuki where he was often hired to play, soldiers often commandeering him from other venues.

At the time, the 45” singles were the most popular, selling for about seven shillings, unlike LPs which sold for ten times more. Polydor and EMI were the leading record labels distributing Western music in Kenya at the time. For Kenyan music lovers and collectors, there was Joseph Kamaru’s City Sound label and Oluoch Kanindo’s Hundwe, among others.

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For a while, Jimmy juggled between selling records and tapes on one hand and deejaying on the other. During the weekdays, Jimmy would be at his Jimpet Record Store at Gakoromone Market, but come weekends he would pack his equipment and go off deejaying at whichever venue he was booked. It was a rigorous routine that came with its challenges, but which he nonetheless kept up until 1989 when he felt he had had enough.

“Most deejays live their life on the fast lane. I found it very dangerous,” Jimmy reminisces  with a laugh. That was around the time HIV Aids was blowing up. “So I decided to drop everything and stop that job.”

What came next was the big move to Nairobi, a migratory trend that was the order of the day for Jimmy’s peers who’d grown up upcountry. The city, it seemed, was where fortune lay.  At the time, Nairobi was a sort of music hub for the region, with a good number of recording studios, record-pressing plants and broadcasting stations stationed here; just the place Jimmy needed to be if he wanted to expand the scope of his music business. And as was the trend back then, Jimmy temporarily relocated his wife and kids to his rural home near Ndakaini Dam, for him to use his savings to do a final reconnaissance tour of Nairobi before opening a small shop at Kenyatta Market, where he remains to date. 

“My main business has been vinyl all through,’’ Jimmy says. ‘‘I managed to retain my clients from Meru even after I moved to Nairobi.”

Asked about the demographics of his clientele Jimmy responds with a chuckle. 

“Lovers of music don’t have to be rich. If you love music, you will even steal. The people who love beer will always be drunk.”

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He reveals that in the ‘90s when record shops were closing, most people thought he was out of his mind when he went around buying their stock. They were wondering why he was not moving along with everyone else in the music business, who were migrating from the old analogue technology to the modern digital technology.

And Jimmy was not just sitting at his little shop in Kenyatta Market waiting for business to come to him. He quickly discovered that his job and wanderlust go hand-in-glove, and like the old explorers of yore, he took to it with vigor, traveling the length and breadth of the region in search of records. It had become an obsession, finding old records and record players wherever the road led him to, and bringing them back to his shop in Nairobi, with his antennae always attuned to the vinyl grapevine for news of where they could be found. Like an archeologist finding and excavating bones and prehistoric objects for his little museum, he kept up this quest until age and the internet slowed him down about five years ago.

“The furthest I went, and it was kind of dangerous, was Namibia, a small town called Swakopmund, in 2004,’’ Jimmy says ‘‘The main supplier of records in Namibia was trying to dispose of her records, and they were so many. At the time, people were moving to CDs. I got her number and we talked on the phone. So I got myself some money and planned my trip. When I am looking for records, I like to do everything overland because by plane (airplane) you don’t get to interact with many people.”

Jimmy planned these record-hunting excursions to the detail. 

“Say I go to a place like Goma,’’ he says.”It is a long journey, stopping in every small town. Once I find some records along the way, I don’t take them with me.  I just note, there is this much here. Then I pick everything up on my way back. Say if I get to a place like Moyale, I do a package and send it to Nairobi by parcel services. And then I move to the next town.”

Beyond hunting for records, Jimmy acquired another skill over time.  

There was a technician by the name Petero Gichuru who was plying his trade in the backroom of Jimmy’s first shop in Meru. It was a union of convenience that allowed Jimmy to train himself on the restoration of old record players. 

“Whenever I was coming to Nairobi to pick more stock, Petero would send me for spares on River Road. And so I learned slowly on the job.”

And so the man sold records, repaired equipment and sold some of it too. 

However, the one thing you shouldn’t ask Jimmy is the worth of the antiques in his shop. He won’t give you a straight answer. He points at what he calls a ‘German monster’, a three-in-one Telephonic. “Someone sold this machine on Muthithi Road sometime last year for 1.3 million,” he hints. It is a speculative business.

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All this while I have been itching to hear what these machines sound like, and so I crate-dig and land on the TPOK Jazz “Forever” LP, which Jimmy obliges to and loads into the Telephonic. It is akin to a ritual to the music gods, opening the finely crafted top on the cabinet to reveal the turntable, and then loading and carefully lowering the stylus on the spinning record. It reminds one of the jukeboxes that used to intrigue me as a kid in the ’80s, the way the arm selected the record from the rack after you had popped a shilling into the slot. And just as promised, when the music wafts out of Jimmy’s ‘German monster’, it is nothing short of heavenly, filling up the shop. The acoustics are perfect; almost as if Franco and his ensemble are right there playing live. 

No CD player would have reproduced that.

Jimmy refuses to be associated with the plastic crap (his word for record players) being manufactured in China today, and which sells for about five thousand bob. “The sound is horrible,” he says. “Someone who knows what he is looking for can’t go buy that stuff.”

And because he belongs to the church of antiques – and for the sake of keeping the infiltrators at bay – Jimmy believes he can bring any record-player back to life, however ruined or ancient it may appear. 

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“There’s a record player that was brought here for repair from Zambia,’’ he says.”It is now working. I don’t know what kind of faith they had in us because sending it all the way from there by DHL was very expensive.”

But then in the business of music, everything seems costly. Starting with records themselves.

“Often the cost of sending records abroad is more expensive than the purchase price,” Jimmy reveals. It’s certainly not a cheap hobby. Collecting music.

So far Jimmy has shipped records to customers in faraway places, including Bolivia and Australia. “We have clients from all over. But seventy percent of our clients are locals. People make the mistake of thinking that it is only Westerners who like records. No. Over seventy percent of our clients are locals.”

I then ask how pricing of records is done, and Jimmy lays down the matrices. 

“The first consideration is how clean  the record is,’’ he says, ‘‘then you look at age and language. Those are the main factors. But the most expensive are African records. Finding them is very hard. But with Western stuff I think we have tens of thousands.”

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Pricing for buyers is equally tricky, but again the key determinant is the cleanness of the records. “Once I find African records that are clean, I will buy them for my clients, whatever the cost,” Jimmy says.

But it is not just records that Jimmy deals in. He also sells cassette tapes, but they have to be original. “The problem with cassette players is normally the gears that drive the head,’’ he says ‘‘A cassette player, if it stays for let’s say a year without playing, those gears, which are plastic, start cracking. Finding replacements is a problem. It is like when you buy a car and keep it at home for months without driving it. Something will definitely happen to it.”

Other than Jimmy’s shop and Melodica in downtown Nairobi, a crate-digger would possibly have to travel to Ethiopia or South Africa to source records, since there are hardly any other dealers Jimmy knows of in Eastern Africa.

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For a lover of records, it is a little strange that Jimmy rarely goes to live music events. 

“I relax here in the shop,” he says with a smug smile. “I don’t go drinking anymore. I don’t socialize any more. You won’t find me in a club or something. I think the last time niliingia kwa bar nikaitisha Tusker is over twenty years ago. But that doesn’t mean I am a teetotaler. I normally go to the supermarket and pick my stuff and once I get to the house I take a glass of whisky and that’s all.”

In his Nairobi home, Jimmy has a German Garrard record player that he puts to use during his down time.  Upcountry, Jimmy has a Technics. But it isn’t as if he is so much into the brands. “You see, with the record player, as long as you are using a machine that uses a diamond tip stylus, the output is always the same so long as your amplification is okay,’’ he says. ‘‘You don’t have to go looking for these fancy brands.”

Jimmy sources his styluses from China and Amsterdam.

“What we normally do for those whose stylus cannot be found is we change the head,’’ he says. ‘‘The head-shell remains but the cartridge is what we change.”

Jimmy’s advice to vinyl lovers is to first build a collection of records before they buy themselves a record player. “By the time you get yourself a record player, most likely the record you are looking for won’t be available. If you want to join this kind of madness, start by collecting your records. Make your pile. Record players will always be there.”

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Jimmy prefers that his clients do not clean their records when bringing them to the shop. 

“Just bring them as they are. Even with closed eyes I will touch a record and know that this record is clean, but there is dust. Now cleaning that record is our secret because we charge,’’ he says. ‘‘With players, if let’s say the wood is broken down, I just need to know the brand and the model number and search for it on the internet. That will show me how the cover used to be, and I’ll make one like it.” 

And after everything is said and done, Jimmy is happy for one thing, that his son, Ndegwa, is taking after him. “He is very good at it,’’ Jimmy says. ‘‘He knows everything about restoration, he is a good fundi who I can entrust with anything.”

It looks like at Jimmy’s shop, the beat will always go on.

Image by Nelson Aruya | Debunk Media


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