Digging in Ghana with Frank Gossner
Dust & Grooves Digging in Ghana with Frank Gossner
By Eilon Paz, as told to April Greene
“I will not be mad when the supply of records runs dry and I’ll have to find different things to do. I’m only mad when someone else finds something before me.” ~ Frank Gossner
Many things made me want to start Dust & Grooves: my love of vinyl, the loss of most of my own record collection, my desire to develop a fun and meaningful photography project—and a handful of really inspiring people. One of those people is Frank Gossner, also known as the man behind VoodooFunk.
Soon after moving to New York City in the summer of 2008, I read a Village Voice story about Frank, a very serious record collector originally from Germany. Frank has literally spent years crate digging in Africa for the Afrobeat, Funk, and Disco records that are the main focus of his collection. Immediately after reading about him, I wanted to meet him, and contacted him through his mighty blog, Voodoo Funk. Frank graciously agreed to see me over coffee, and the conversation we had that day led many places, including to the beginning of Dust & Grooves.
In the months that followed, Frank kept encouraging me to start the vinyl photography project that had been germinating in my head for some time, and also helped introduce me to the people and places at the heart of the New York digging scene. One of the first acquaintances I made through him was Joel Stones, owner of the gorgeous East Village record shop Tropicalia in Furs. Beside being another cool and knowledgeable person I could talk with about records, Joel would become the first subject of a Dust & Grooves profile when I launched the site that October. (Frank got his turn in 2010.)
Another of the biggest boons of getting to know Frank, however, would not come until over two years later. In January 2011, Frank agreed to let me tag along for a short leg of his digging trip to the West African country of Ghana. The great volume of records pressed there in the 1970s (Ghana’s record industry heyday) has attracted large numbers of foreign vinyl heads and profit-oriented exporters to the country since. Also, since record collecting has never been the serious pastime in Ghana that it is in other places, competition from local buyers tends to be minimal. Frank has found great records in Ghana before, but thought this might be his last trip there, as the selection has dwindled so much. I was excited to check out these legendary record-hunting routes, but even happier about the fact that Frank was willing to have me along as a companion for part of this perhaps-final journey—he most often digs alone. Also special about this trip was that Frank and I share an affinity for Africa: the music, the people, the landscapes. So this was bound to be a magical time.
Magical with big patches of discomfort, it turned out, starting with visa issues. Frank and I had agreed to start by meeting in the town of Hohoe, on the east side of the country, then head north to Tamale. I was traveling from Cameroon but hadn’t yet arranged my visa for Ghana; I thought I could buy it at the border. This being Africa, however, protocol changed just in time for my visit and I wound up stranded at the Ghanaian consulate in Togo for days, begging the desk clerks and eventually even the dour consul himself to give me a break. Finally they showed me mercy and allowed me a 10-day visa; not ideal, as I’d been planning to stay three weeks, but it was a lot better than nothing, and I wound up walking over the border from Togo into Ghana (where a guard was able to extend my stay to two and a half weeks in exchange for a wink, smile, and $30). Once I got to the capital city of Accra, I was just a bumpy seven-hour bus ride away from where Frank was staying in Hohoe.
Needless to say, when I arrived at the hotel bar after midnight, Frank was a sight for sore eyes. But no sooner had I ordered a beer and begun to relax than he broke the news: Hohoe was dry, he had found; there was nothing here to be dug these days (at least nothing he wanted). But he had gotten a good tip about Mampong, so he wanted to change course and head there. I forget if I laughed or cried when Frank told me we were about to be going back nearly the same way I’d just come: around Lake Volta to the city of Kumasi, from which we’d get to the tiny town of Mampong, a nine-hour bumpy bus ride this time. And please don’t picture an air-conditioned coach with TV screens and drink-holding armrests. A lot of well-worn European minibuses are donated to African countries to live out their golden years packed with commuters and all manner of material goods. The people of Ghana are polite and tolerant, but when you’re packed like sardines with anyone on a bus trip that long and hot and nauseating, you’re pretty glad to say your farewells when it’s over.
When we got to Kumasi, we hired two porters (they happened to be female; interestingly to me, lots of women were offering to do this work at the bus terminal, along with men) to help us schlep our bags to the taxi we’d take to Mampong. Frank takes his digging trips with several huge bags systematically filled with clothes, record equipment, and shit loads of fliers. And just like the luggage system, he has a tried and true methodology for digging in Africa: for each location he visits, he puts together colorful fliers showing the covers of albums he wants to buy and his phone number, with instructions to call if you have the record and want to sell it. He also buys airtime at local radio stations in each location: the DJ announces several times a day for however many days Frank’s in town that anyone with records in his genres can take them to his hotel (or a park, or wherever he’s setting up shop) during a certain range of hours. Though the fliers often get taken down and kept just because they’re pretty, and though lots of people show up to the hotel lobbies with very different types of records, or sometimes no records at all, and though sometimes they call Frank with false claims of great collections, overall, the pitches do pay off.
Finally, we arrive in Mampong. It’s dry, dusty, and flat; dirt roads, tin sheds, rail fences, donkeys milling. It’s shorts and t-shirts weather, though of course Frank has his fatigues and heavy boots on. (He explains that he’s on a mission when he digs like this: no frivolous flip-flops—he’s dressed for duty.) We make our first stop checking into the Video City Hotel, so named because of its close proximity to a former thriving VHS projection house-slash-church! The hotel’s proprietor explained to us that since the advent of DVDs, few people were interested in leaving the house and paying admission to see inferior quality films. But many of the murals and artifacts that had adorned the place in its heyday—both of cinematic and religious theme—remained, and walking through the empty building was a total trip: oh look, here’s a tempera rendering of Invasion of the Blood Farmers across the aisle from a statue of Jesus. Pretty intense. (Frank writes about the Video City Hotel in his account of the Ghana trip on Voodoo Funk.)
Of course, we couldn’t spend too long loitering in that cool decaying palace—Frank had records to find. Out came his chrome-plated staple gun and up went scores of fliers. When they’re traveling together, Frank usually asks Ken to do the stapling because it’s a lot less conspicuous. Ken is a native Ghanaian who helps Frank scout for records from time to time: he helps translate (both language and culture), spreads the word to key people about Frank’s arrival, and generally acts as a liaison. Especially in places where white skin just equals money in the eyes of many locals, his help can be vital.
On the first day of the four we planned to spend in Mampong, turnout was not great. Despite the ads on Mighty FM and all the fliers, we had few visitors, their records were not in Frank’s bailiwick, and a lot of them were in poor shape. It’s a difficult thing, turning people down: they’ve come some distance with their records, and usually could really use the money. Frank stays professional through the entire process, though, letting people know nicely but definitively when he’s not interested. He gave me a good lesson in professionalism of a different kind, as well. When our first potential sellers showed up to the hotel patio that day, I immediately starting taking pictures. Frank let a few shutter clicks go by before taking me aside and suggesting that if I wanted to take a bunch of pictures of someone, it would be nice of me to offer the person something in return, like maybe buy one of their cheaper records. In a situation like this, he explained, people are apt to feel they’re giving something when their photo is taken, so it’s only polite for the photographer to give something back. I took up this habit immediately and kept it for the duration of the trip. I even wound up with some good records this way.
We felt a bit discouraged after the slow start, but on the second day, we made an acquaintance who would become one of the trip’s, and Dust & Grooves’, most memorable players. Philip Osei Kojo was 90 years old when we met him, and a father of 24 (yes, let me repeat that: he has 24 children). Philp often sits on the Video City patio and has an afternoon beer; he’s something of a fixture in the community and receives regular visitors. This afternoon, as we all got to talking about records and the purpose of our trip, Philip bought Frank and I a beer—for the “rich tourists” to be treated to drinks by a local was, to us, a startlingly kind gesture. Philip said he had a large record collection, and we would be welcome to go to his house to see it, so early the next morning, we did.
Philip lives alone now, and his home is well appointed though not fancy. Frank promptly sat and pored over Philip’s collection with his usual lightning speed and expert eye. Much of it was highlife music, but nothing of particular interest to Frank right then, since the condition of the records was pretty poor. I myself bought a few albums that caught my eye, and Philip made a point of giving me one as a gift.
One fascinating thing we learned about Philip that day was that he hadn’t listened to his records in over 30 years. He used to pride himself on his habit of replacing his Zenith turntable needle when it got too worn down so it wouldn’t mar his records. But at some point the Zenith needed repairs that Philip couldn’t make, and, with no record repair shop in town, his collection laid fallow. This story of course affected me, and I spent the next day thinking about it.
Day three at the hotel gave us a better crop. Just as we were were getting used to the long, tedious days of sitting around, waiting for things to happen, a woman approached us with a plastic bag containing about 25 LPs. Ken picked through them but couldn’t find anything he thought Frank would want. I asked if I could take a portrait of her with the records and she agreed; to show my gratitude, I bought one of them for 20 Ghanaian Cedis (about $10 US). I had no idea what it was, and clues from the sleeve indicated it might be English reggae and/or religious in nature, but the name on the front, “Heads Funk,” caught my eye. I showed it to Frank and he was taken aback. “Ken,” he said, “how could you not show me this record? Anything with the word ‘funk’ in the title is something I want to see, even if it might appear to be reggae.” Ken acknowledged his mistake and we went to Frank’s room to listen to the record (a big component of Frank’s digging expeditions is the dragging around of a portable turntable, so he can preview records before buying). The music didn’t turn out to be our favorite, but Heads Funk is a collectible group and this record was even relatively rare (Frank hadn’t seen it before). We made some other good scores later that afternoon—including a record by Ghanaian band Marijata that Frank was very happy to get—but my 20 Cedi LP probably made for the best story.
The morning of the fourth day, I got an idea: could I take Frank’s portable turntable to Philip’s house so he could listen to his records once again, even if only for an afternoon? I asked Frank if he would be willing to make the loan for this special occasion. The turntable is the lifeline between Frank and his records throughout digging ventures like this; if something happened to it, we might not be able to get a replacement in time to save the trip. Frank was quite aware of all this, yet it didn’t take him long to consent. The hope that we might be able to give Philip an afternoon with his music was reward enough to take the risk.
I thanked Frank and headed to Philip’s with the turntable. He was happy to see me, and quickly went to work setting up a table and chairs on his porch to make us a proper listening area. Then he searched through the house and collected stack after stack of records to bring out. Many weren’t in sleeves and had become laced with the dust of years past; others were sandwiched in covers that looked well-used. We hooked the little turntable up to small speakers that gave off a warm, ambient, transistor-y sound. Our ad hoc record room was actually a pretty sight.
In the golden afternoon light, Philip selected his first 45 and dutifully dusted it off before setting it on the platter and lifting the tonearm down as I looked on. At the first sound, he grinned a little, but his eyes were distant; he looked pensive and unsure. It was hard to imagine everything he was feeling. He lovingly dusted off a second record and carefully examined the wording on its label before playing it. He hadn’t even looked at many of these albums in decades; it was as though he were rediscovering all of it before my eyes.
After a few songs played through and Philip stayed still, I started to move a bit to see if it might make him more comfortable—just a little snapping, humming along. I wasn’t sure if it would draw him out, but almost as soon as I started, he let loose. The smiles came bursting forth, the laughter erupted, and soon he was dancing and clapping along. He came alive, even throwing his head back joyfully and moving his hips like he was on the dance floor to some of his favorite tunes. It was a wonderful and special thing to watch Philip reconnecting with music that had once been a part of his life but that for so long had been silent. We kept up the snaps and smiles, and grooved for more than an hour.
Philip walked me back to Video City when he’d had enough. I offered to send him some of the photographs I took during our listening session, but he wasn’t really interested. We said our farewells, and I gave Frank back his turntable, still in fine shape.
Frank, Ken, and I packed our operation up that night and woke at 5:00 the next morning to take a twelve-hour bus to Tamale, which was a whole different sort of terrible than the bus that had gotten us to Kumasi. Maybe the universe heard my complaints about the lack of air conditioning and entertainment on that ride, because this bus driver threatened to give me hypothermia with the AC on blast the whole way, and a series of low-budget African soap opera-style dramas played on a loud loop, frying my brain in contrast. I got the feeling most of the other passengers were enjoying the ride, but it was all I could do not to jump out a window. Frank, of course, was unbothered.
Tamale had been a big hope for Frank, who thought its remote location would mean a good cache of unfound records. (As he put it: “The more remote the location and the worse the road that leads to it, the better your chances of finding valuable records.” But small towns can also wind up bone-dry and a big hassle to get to for nothing, so you have to weigh the gamble.) The city is a bit of a thruway for trade between the north and south regions of the country, and therefore its own local culture has a hard time taking root. It also doesn’t get a lot of tourists, and therefore most of the hotels are filled with rats and uninterested staff. But eventually we found a nice place on the outskirts of town and settled in for the night.
The climate is harsher in Tamale than in Mampong, hotter and more desert-like. It also feels a little more relaxed; there’s a larger Muslim population there and it shows in the calm demeanors of the people. Ken left the hotel at 6:00 am to attack the city with flyers and arrange for spots on two radio stations. I thought people might occasionally mind having their telephone poles plastered with these things, but that never seemed to be the case; they appeared to be entertained by it more than anything. Something else about Tamale: At a certain point, Frank decided he should print some larger posters and post them on walls across the city. Since no computers were involved in this craft, Franks had to reconstruct the layout of the fliers and adjust it to a poster layout in a DIY-style, with fingernail scissors and glue.
We got a lot of fake phone calls in Tamale—Frank started a Fool Numbers list so we knew not to pick up the phone if one of them rang twice. Ken worked hard talking with each caller first, to ascertain if they were being honest by asking for specific details about records (“What does the back side of the cover look like?” and “What’s the first song on the first side?” were nearly foolproof questions). Between fake offers, we answered a call from Mr. Baba, an elderly-sounding man who purported to have a good collection at home. Ken vetted him and we agreed to pay a visit.
Baba welcomed us in and Frank got down to business. We soon came across an album by Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 called Zombie from 1977. Baba explained that “zombie” was a slang term for police, and that the record was considered so controversial that it was once banned in Ghana; Baba used to hide it from view, even in his house. Frank already has a few copies of it, but that was great for me, as I was keen to take it home.
Baba told us that his health was no longer good and he couldn’t leave the house much. He wanted to sell as many records as possible to pay for his medications. I offered him about $10 for Zombie and he accepted, saying that was good money. He walked us back to our hotel slowly, around piles of building bricks and stands of goats, and we parted ways.
Our last day in Tamale was a mixed bag. We met a guy on a motorbike in the morning who claimed he had some of the records Frank had been looking for desperately. Frank asked him all about them as we stood in the road, trying to make sure he was the real deal before we made the effort to trek to his home. He was convincing, so off we went. But when we got there, the reality was entirely different: just stacks and stacks of totally unrelated stuff. Frank got pretty upset and we look off. When you only have so much time to spend, it stings to realize you’ve wasted it.
Back at the hotel, though, we were able to redeem our luck. A super knowledgeable man who had connections to the music community in Tamale came by the courtyard in the afternoon with some great stuff. Frank pored over the collection for some time, playing record after record on his turntable, which was perched on a bench between two trees. He came away with a good haul, and the experience definitely helped make up for the crap time we’d had earlier that day.
Though we wound up making out alright overall in Tamale (with a very rare Astronauts Pop Band 45 taking the cake), Frank commented that this was so far the least successful digging trip he’d ever been on. It was hard for me to believe, as it seemed to me like a great adventure, but apparently it paled in comparison for him.
My time with Frank was up after our stint in Tamale, but he and Ken went on to Bolgatanga, Wa, and Accra, possibly among other places. Frank wrote on his blog about one incident in which he broke down an old door (with the hotel owner’s permission) to take a look through a forgotten trove of records just minutes before his bus left for the next town! Maybe that episode redeemed the trip somewhat for him.
Clearly, Frank’s and my harrowing, fun, all-too-quick digging sprint in Ghana was a hugely memorable and priceless event for me. But it’s also nice to know that that trip was just one piece of the Dust & Grooves quilt, and it sits alongside the many other brilliant experiences, people, and places that make this project so remarkable. And we’re not even close to stopping! As I learned from Frank, and as we always say here at Dust & Grooves: keep digging.
An open debate on the legitimacy of trading cultural assets
Digging for records and other cultural assets in Africa and other countries, raises some questions. I know people have different views on the legitimacy of it. Some will look at it as sharing and promoting hidden cultures while others may see this is as cultural exploitation. My friend Alex has pointed a question to Frank about his point of view, and as you can see, he’s very strong minded about it.
I do encourage a debate on this issue. please write your opinions on the comment section below.
Questions to Frank:
Q: Isn’t there a similarity with the story of antiques trade (masks, religious object) between collectors, foundations and museums on one hand and countries like Ivory Coast, Mali and others who sells, most of the time in a corrupted way, their cultural heritage? A religious mask from Korogho becomes a weird ceremonial mask, an art brut like mask in a private collection in Europe worth thousands of USD. Isn’t Frank Gossner participating in the same way with rare records to this cultural buy out? Isn’t this disturbing and contradictory specially when he seems to come to Ghana with the best intentions? Where does his passion for records end and does he take in consideration what other values those records could have in terms of cultural heritage.
A: I’ve been in debates about the ethics of record digging in Africa one too many times and I’m really tired of it but ok, I will for once and for all lay it all out and say all that I could ever say to this topic. Don’t get me wrong, I do not feel any need to defend myself. I actually have absolutely no interest whatsoever in what other people think of me, unless of course if they have some records I might want.
Some people think that I go to Africa to buy rare records for little money to then take them to the US or to Europe and sell them for a huge profit. Yes, I sometimes do sell spare records and I usually sell them for what to some people must seem like a big amount of money. That’s because it is very expensive to find these things. If I can’t get what I consider a record to be worth then I rather keep it. Some people want these records badly enough to pay my high prices and everybody walks away happy. I spend very serious money on finding these records and when I do find them I pay top money for the really rare ones. It is part of my strategy to pay much better prices than competing dealers and collectors. I still remember this one guy who (on Soulstrut) once claimed that I was taking an unfair advantage by buying records from people who had no idea of their real value. Two sentences further the same guy began lamenting how a record dealer in Accra now wants to have $50 per record after he began doing business with me. The word always spreads and this way I make sure that nobody falls for the competition and people sell their goods to me instead.
It would be a stupid to do this type of work solely to make money. I could not depend on returning my investment. Would I ever want to sell off my entire collection, I would most probably make back all of my money and probably some more but so far I spent 7 years on finding these records and selling such a large collection would take several years. How do you value 10 years of personal labor?
I do this work because it fulfills me. I experience what I do as deeply rewarding and luckily I am in a position where I do not depend on making any regular monetary profit. If some people have a problem with this then fuck them. This is just what I do for work, they should see what I do for fun and they would literally explode in a jealous rage.
Some fools even go as far as to accuse me of robbing the African continent of cultural artifacts and compare me to dealers or collectors of antique, African masks and other pieces of tribal art. How dumb do you have to be to compare mass produced media like vinyl records to unique relics or ceremonial items? At a point in time when in Mali, unique cultural sites and artifacts that supposedly are under UNESCO protection are getting destroyed by religious zealots right under the eyes of the world, to call me out for buying used records is a fucking joke.
These records might seem very important and desirable to me and to a few other people who invest a lot of time and effort in finding and collecting them, but after all, they are just records. They reflect a fairly brief moment in post colonial, West African popular music. Just compare the cultural significance of 15 years worth of pop music to what was lost by the introduction of malign foreign religions like Islam or Christianity. In Guinea for example the vast majority of antique, religious artifacts wasn’t lost to shady art and antiques dealers but they were destroyed by agents, specifically employed by the country’s first president, dictator and fierce Muslim Sekou Toure to go to even the most remote villages and wipe out all traces of the young countries original, animist religion and culture. Missionizing, aggressive cults like the pentecostal church or jehova’s witnesses and uncountable others (usually financed and steered from the US) still today destroy local culture and customs by spreading their spiritual poison preferably in the most remote areas of countries like Sierra Leone or even the proudly animist Benin. Anybody concerned about the preservation of African culture should go out and kill a missionary and not waste their thoughts on me buying a bunch of old records before they’re being burned or thrown into a landfill.
These records are rare because they have been neglected, destroyed and forgotten in their countries of origin. It is up to every individual people to preserve their own culture. Why should anybody expect somebody else to do this for them? If a people does not have any interest in preserving or archiving their music and other cultural accomplishments then that is their own sovereign decision. I completely detest the attitude that foreigners should in any form influence or dictate the way a country or a people deals with their own cultural heritage. To do so would be true cultural imperialism. And don’t even start arguing how Africans can’t afford the luxury to spend money on collecting records. Countries like Ghana have a strong middle class, there’s a booming market for things like luxury cars, iphones and all the other newest gadgets. There are numerous nightclubs where people go to dance to the newest, locally produced electronic music, so no, there is no lack of money, there is a lack of interest and a lack of appreciation for the type of records that I’m buying.
Today the local interest in vintage music is relatively small to non-existent in West Africa. Just like in the rest of the word, the young crowd wants to dance to modern club tunes. I personally can’t stand any of this autotuned garbage but that’s my own personal taste. Just as every single record that I buy, I buy because of my own personal, musical taste and interest. I go places and I buy records. I do so as a free man with a free spirit and a taste of my own. To anybody who wants to tell me that this entails any sort responsibility or obligation I have one thing to say: Fuck off!
I am not hoarding these records. I’m selling spare copies to other collectors. I play my own records out at various club nights all over the world and I have put out over a dozen of fully licensed re-issues on various record labels in the US and in Europe. For a little over a year, I promoted and dj-ed my own club night in the Guinean capital Conakry. I’ve been throwing bi-weekly parties in NYC for the past 4 years before moving to Central America, where I live and dig today. I’m currently being booked to dj gigs in Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, Germany and other European countries for later this year and the spring of 2013. I’m not hoarding these records, I’m doing exactly what they were meant for: I play them out for people to dance to. Records weren’t made to be put in a museum. Fuck a museum. We humans are nothing all that special. We design, compose, build, paint or mold what might seem as an accomplishment to ourselves or to others only to destroy, neglect or forget our creations once they fall out of fashion. It’s always been like this and nothing will ever change. One day we will all be gone and in the entire historic span of the existence of this planet, mankind will not be more but a messy, regrettable footnote. There is no reason to take ourselves or any of our creations too important.
Then there are those who say that the music on the records that I find should be available for everybody… In the day and age of online file-sharing a lot of people have developed this completely unfounded sense of entitlement by expecting that every record ever released should be at their disposal in the form of a digital recording. I don’t think so! This attitude has pissed me off so much lately that I decided to discontinue publishing online mixes. There is enough music out there already, if you want to find the more elusive stuff then put in some work yourself.
Q: Give me an example on how you help preserve these records?
A: I’ve put out around a dozen of records with a handful of different labels over the past 4 years alone and with one singular exception, I never accepted any payment besides a bunch of free copies to sell at my club nights. I made sure that the original artists or in some cases the producer or original label owner got paid well instead.
Q: Are there any organizations or charities who work on preserving the musical heritage of the countries you dig in?
A: I don’t know. I’ve always been a fierce individualist and have never had any interest in any type of organization.
Q: Where you ever concerned about the shrinking stock of records?
A: No, as a rule I never give a shit about things that I can’t change. I don’t care about global warming either.
Please consider commenting on this issue.