I am in Pereira, a city in the foothills of the Andes in the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis) region of Colombia. This is not my first time in Pereira. The first time was when I came to my friends Sara and Stanley’s wedding. The second time was a year after their wedding when I visited them. I had planned the trip because I had fallen in love with the city the year before, but had not had enough time to get to know it. Now, coming from the immigration office because pandemic restrictions have made it such that it is easier to book an appointment in another city than the one I live in, I find myself with an entire day here before my 8 pm flight back to Bogotá. And because this is my third time here, I know my way around the city.
I’ve been walking for about an hour and a half towards a destination Google Maps said was 40 minutes away. It’s clear I am lost because out of all the times I have been here, I don’t remember being in a part of town that reminds me of Muthurwa (now, there is nothing wrong with Muthurwa, you just don’t want to unexpectedly find yourself in an abroad Muthurwa). As expected, I start to panic. If there is something Nairobi has taught me, it’s how to survive urban spaces. For example, when I get lost in a city, I follow these simple rules: 1) never look like you are lost. Face your front with confidence (and mostly hope). 2) If you are going to ask for directions, ask someone you can trust, preferably in a shop where you can buy something (or a security guard, but that might work against you). 3) You can’t face your front forever. Find a way to turn back, but do not make it obvious. Remember, you only need two left turns. I follow my rules as I keep looking at my phone in a way that ensures I won’t lose it because the first thing they tell you when you land in Colombia is “no dar papaya” which loosely translates to “don’t be low hanging fruit”. After a block I take a left into a narrow alley, my heart is now in my chest. I take another left that places me on a road with more scrap metal collection points than seems necessary, and I walk back to the Pereira I know.
By the time I get back to the park, I am hungry, my feet hurt, and I am tired. I buy some juice at a stand and then I get my phone. I delete “Tienda de Vinilo” and write “record store” and it tells me there is one a block away from where I am. Once again, Google Maps has sent me on a wild goose chase. The shop I’m in sells musical instruments and is manned by two goth youths. I imagine they are goth because of all the black. And the piercings. They can tell I’m lost so they offer to help. I tell them what I’m looking for and they tell me about the old man on 52nd Street. I thank them and I leave. It’s now 2pm. I have been walking for four hours.
Fifteen minutes later I take a turn off 52nd street into Avenue 19 and I am met with two kiosks facing each other. Relief! Both kiosks are packed with vinyl records. The man is a wonderful older gentleman who welcomes me with a smile and strong paisa accent. He picks what he thinks I will like, and makes a little pile: Los Grandes Del Jazz 22, Feelings by Fausto Papetti, To Be Number One by the Giorgio Moroder Project, Herb Alpert’s Beyond, James Last’s Love Must Be The Reason. He keeps building the pile as I look around. This man not only knows his music, he also knows his clients. I ask him a question and he ignores me, keeps digging and building the pile. I ask again. He ignores me again. His friend, seated on a wooden crate, talking a bit too loudly, tells me to shout. “Qué?” I ask, because I’m confused, the man I am meant to be shouting at is only two feet away. “Shout,” he says, “he doesn’t hear very well.” The irony is not lost on me. There are so many questions I want to ask him, but I am not about to interview a man and the rest of the street. He digs, I dig, his friend gossips, the pile builds. I get lost in the moment and for however long we dig through crates and crates of history, and stories, and memories, I’m not hungry, my feet don’t hurt, I am not tired; I am here, where the music is.
I have been collecting things for as long as I can remember. From chewing gum stickers, to promotional bottle tops, Super Strikas comics, to basketball cards marketed by the American missionaries who came to my school, weirdly enough, to sell basketball cards. I loved sitting down with the things, getting lost in them. The point wasn’t that I had the thing. I didn’t think of collecting as gathering to save, in that way that is driven by scarcity. I collected things because of what they reminded me: how I came by them, how I was feeling at the time, where I was, who was there, who had it before I did…. All those were important aspects of my collecting. In a way, I was not just collecting the object, but the story of the object. I maintained this habit over the years, collecting stories that brought me joy: ticket stubs, books, notes, gadgets, rocks, many, many things; until I eventually found my way to vinyl records.
The first record I bought was Dexys Midnight Runners’ Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. It wasn’t the first record I owned, I had inherited about five from my parents (when I say inherited I just mean I found them in the house and took them when I moved out). They were a mishmash of different genres from Venus by Logic System which describes itself as “the essence of computer music”, to Passion by Jennifer Rush which features the sundowner hit You’re My One and Only, there was Stanley Black’s Stanley Black Plays for Latin Lovers whose album art reminds me of Antonio from No One But You lost at sea while his brother Max steals his entire life, and Tina Charles’ I Love to Love. Then there was my favourite, a severely warped African Song by Anna Mwale.
When I got home from Asanand Music Shop with Dexys Midnight Runners’ Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, I took the record from my bag and spent a minute looking at the sleeve. The album art is a picture of a boy holding two bags, one of them bursting open in a way that shows he was in a hurry when he packed. On his face is this determined look, like a child forced to deal with heavy things too early in their life. There is movement behind him. A woman holds a child to his left, and a man holds another child to his right. There is a bus filled with people hanging onto it. In each of the faces on the cover, there is worry. I took the record out of the sleeve and placed it onto the old Detrola my father had sent me a few months back and I placed the tone arm on the record. First came silence, and then the thud when one places the needle onto the record with the dexterity of a beginner, and then a hiss, a soft rustle, a scratch and then the music. The album starts with a sound I gravitate towards: radio static. An imaginary listener is searching through several frequencies and then lands on one. A severely British voice comes in and yells, “Hey Jimmy!” Jimmy and a crowd behind him shout “Yeah!” and the voice continues, “For God’s sake, burn it down!” and then a barrage of horns pushes out of the speakers and the voice sings, in this raspy, almost whiny voice, accompanied by the horns, “this man is looking for someone to hold him down, he just doesn’t quite ever understand the meaning.” I reach for the sleeve and read along with the lyrics:
“I never heard about Oscar Wilde
I don’t talk about Brendan Behan
I don’t think about Sean O’Casey
I don’t care about George Bernard Shaw.”
I don’t realise when the song ends, only when the whole side does. I get up and flip the record and repeat the process. From the time I get lost in the album art, to the moment the needle hits that record and the album plays, nothing else matters. I am here, where the music is.
I didn’t buy as many records as I should have until I moved to Colombia. The last record I bought was Reggae Greats: Gregory Isaacs Live at a flea market in Edinburgh. Records in Nairobi were too expensive for a broke, recently graduated writer. By 2020, I had about 22 records found almost accidentally on various trips. And then the pandemic was announced. By the time I was going to Pereira, one year later, I had over 100 records.
There is a lot to be said about how the pandemic altered our ways of life, the permanent interruption, the brutal truncation; but the pandemic was the catalyst for my buying records. As Keguro puts it, there was fear as to whether this would be the last time we got to do these things that give us pleasure and give meaning to life. 2020 ushered my metamorphosis from someone who merely bought records, to one that collects. As my collection grew, so did my realisation that a record collection is also a map.
One of my favourite records in my collection is To Be Number One by the Giorgio Moroder Project. You might have heard him speak about his musical journey in the song Giorgio by Moroder by Daft Punk. Giorgio’s influence on disco and electronic dance music is undisputed, and having his earlier work in my collection is such a joy. To Be Number One, for me, is not important just for the music but also for being a map of Pereira during a pandemic. It is the sounds of a city trying to get back on its feet, the smell of bandeja paisa coming from display windows along the street, the feeling of the cool breeze blowing across Bolívar Plaza as I recover from a four hour hike, and the feeling of seeing and being seen through and across masked faces. The record is a map of the city where we found each other.
To Be Number One by the Giorgio Moroder Project is one of my most valued (not necessarily valuable) records because of the part of my life it holds. I play it and I remember how I was lost, how two lovely young people helped a stranger, how an old man who’s hearing was not that great, could still hear what I needed, and how even as the world seemed to fall apart, we still found ways to make it possible, to look to the past, these old things, as a way of looking inward. Without knowing it, collecting records had become a life-sustaining ritual.
When I finally came back to Kenya, I left many things I loved behind. These were things that marked my life in Colombia: tickets, souvenirs, gifts from my students (I brought as many as I could), my knives… things that meant a lot to me, just so that I could bring my entire collection. My father couldn’t understand why I sacrificed so much for these old things. We sat to listen to Forbidden Fruit by Nina Simone, and as expected, he complained about the noise. I was enjoying the music too much to get into it, but if I could go back to that moment, I would tell him that every time a record is played it degrades. The needle digs into the grooves more and more, leaving a trace, a memory of that particular moment. Even a worn down sleeve tells a story of care; hands holding, touching, passing, trading. Vinyl, afterall, is the sound of friction. It’s what Damon Kurowski, in his article Surface Noise, describes: “Analog sound reproduction is tactile. It is, in part, a function of friction: the needle bounces in the groove, the tape drags across a magnetic head. Friction dissipates energy in the form of sound. Meaning: you hear these media being played. Surface noise and tape hiss are not flaws in analog media but artefacts of their use. Even the best engineering, the finest equipment, the “ideal” listening conditions cannot eliminate them. They are the sound of time, measured by the rotation of a record or reel of tape—not unlike the sounds made by the gears of an analog clock.” Vinyl records are indeed the sounds of friction, of rubbing; of intimacy.
My collection is an archive of the little beautiful life I have lived. Whether it’s Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly that I got as a gift from my student which reminds me of wonderful relationships I built in the classroom, or the Julio Iglesias record I got on that random trip to Cartago. Or perhaps it’s Barry White’s Just Another Way To Say I love You that I found in a roller skating rink in Medellín, or the records I bought on dates with Juliette at RPM and La Gran Manzana. Maybe it’s finding a Nazizi and Abbass single in Chapinero with Kevo, or the many times my cat Pepita sat on my lap as I listened to Dionne Warwick. Whatever it is, each of these old things hold a life I have lived, and many beyond that.