Jan 21, 2011

Afro Record Diggin': 2nd interview with Frank Gossner

The picture

When record collectors talk shop, conversation can often lead to someone saying “damn, someone must be sitting on a pile of those records”. This is a photo of Frank Gossner, an avid collector of Afrobeat music from West Africa who has turned his love of African music into a career that has lead to doing DJ sets and compiling reissues for record labels.

This photo is a document of a recent journey to Ghana and Nigeria, but you’ll have to read his journey towards the records. The actual color photos of what he found are amazing, one of the photos is captioned “My head was about to explode”. Any of us who have done any level of digging and collecting will know what it means to find something decent, but this is, in the words of the Geto Boys, the other level of the game.



Frank Gossner - the King of Voodoo Funk

There are some of us who love music, and then there is Frank Gossner. He can't really be described as a music lover - that is just not strong enough. A disciple, per haps... At one point, Frank literally packed his bags and moved to West Africa, where he lived for years collecting vinyl. Not only is Frank one of the most respected record collectors in the world, as founder of the Voodoo Funk parties, he has helped the world realize what Mama Africa has known for centures - that African music is no joke! As he prepares for upcoming shows in Brooklyn, NY and Washington D.C., Frank took some time to discuss his passion for African vinyl and life as an itinerant collector.

The interview

How long have you been dj’ing and collecting records; and how did you first start digging for African records?

I've been buying records since I was a kid. Mostly Rock and I was really into Punk and so called Alternative Rock when I was a teenager. When CDs came up, I stopped buying new releases, partly because I didn't feel like spending money on such a crappy format, but also because I was getting more and more into Funky European Movie Soundtracks, French Pop from the 60’s and other stuff I could find in flea markets and second hand stores.

I began dj’ing this type of music in illegal nightclubs in Berlin around 1994 and moved to NYC two years later where I began buying loads of Funk 45s and Latin Soul records. I went back to Berlin in 2000 to establish a successful Funk party. On one of my digging trips to Philadelphia, I discovered a stack of Nigerian records on the Tabansi label that somehow had ended up in the back room of a store named Smith's Records. Among them was the “Pax Nicholas” LP, which I eventually re-issued on Daptone Records. This find, along with those great compilations on Soundway Records led me to believe that there must be so much more out there.

Yeah, that “Pax Nicholas” LP is HOT!!!! I didn’t realize you were involved in that project. Thanks for breaking that one! (Editor’s note: The expression “breaking a record” means to be the first to introduce it to major audiences.) So what is it about African records that has inspired such passion and dedication from you to become one of the most respected collectors of African music in the world?

Unlike with US Funk 45s, there still are a lot of African records out there, which to this day, are unknown outside of Africa. It is the most exciting feeling to be in a dusty warehouse someplace in the middle of nowhere and put a record on the portable turntable that you've never seen before. I can hardly think of anything more rewarding and then when I get the chance to play these records for other people... life doesn't get much better than this! (Editor's note: for those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing a record, a "45" is a small 7 inch record with a single song on each side...called "45s" because they have to be played at a speed of 45 rpm on a turntable.)

That is an amazing feeling…it’s like re-discovering a piece of artistic genius that the world has forgotten. O.k., so while most collectors are satisfied buying from other collectors, what inspired you to actually pick up and move to Africa? Where exactly were you in Africa, and for how long?

I wanted to have unfiltered access to the music. I lived in Conakry, Guinea for three years and from there made uncountable trips to Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria.

Do you have a favorite destination in Africa?

I think I enjoyed my stays in Benin the most but also had incredible experiences in the forest region of Guinea and on the beaches of the Freetown peninsula.

What's the craziest adventure you've had while digging for vinyl? I always find the bargaining aspect kind of intriguing.

I always get asked about this and can never find an answer. I never had anything really crazy happen to me while digging for records. The digging itself was probably one of the more relaxing and soothing experiences I had while living in Africa.

Craziness would strike at other times. For example when a Guinean friend and I had to bring life saving medication to his wife who was in critical condition in a hospital in Conakry and the security guard would demand a bribe in order to let us through and we actually had to get physical with this guy, which almost led to a riot amongst other waiting relatives in front of the gate who were cheering us on and hospital staff who was shocked at our refusal to obey the guard.

Or when we couldn't leave the house for weeks due to heavy shooting and an army curfew and eventually had to flee through the jungle into Sierra Leone, and I was wearing a made up fantasy uniform with photoshopped ID plaque identifying myself as "General Gossner" in order to impress the armed drunkards that were manning the uncountable military checkpoints.

After a while a lot of the daily experiences when on the road, looking for records seemed perfectly normal although someone else might consider them a "crazy adventure.” Like for example when we barely avoided a head-on collision with a truck due to a blown tire and my driver insisted on seeing a witch doctor and handing out chunks of raw meat to the poor in an effort to get the spiritual support of the gods for the remainder of our travel.

That’s hilarious! But it reminds me of an anecdote in “Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuscinski. During his sojourn in Africa, he marveled at the unshakeable belief in fate and the power of the spirits. Rather than attributing a mechanical failure to poor maintenance, many people will believe that they’ve been cursed. Very different from the Western way of thinking… Alright…sorry…one of my famous digressions. Let’s get back to you…

So I know you've met a number of the original artists. What do they think when you express interest in their music? Are they surprised that this dude from Europe is so interested in their music?

They usually are mildly surprised and of course they are pleased. But in general, these artists are very well aware of the significance of their music. Maybe it's just my personal viewpoint but I think for any outsider, even for the more obsessed European or American collector, this music still doesn't have the same importance and relevance it had for its original African audience.

I don't like this certain Western attitude towards African artists as in "Now that we have discovered your incredible music, it finally matters and now you might get the attention you deserve, isn't this great? Aren't you overcome with happiness about this?"

Being able to listen to this music should count as a blessing and as an honor to outsiders like us and we should be humbled by the experience and surprised at how long we have been ignorant.

Amen to that! It's kind of hard to ask people their favorite artists...so instead, what do you think has been your greatest find to date?

Maybe this unknown LP by Orlando Julius that I'm in the process of getting re-issued right now...or those two 45s by the Psychedelic Aliens, which also will be out later this year. Not that I'm just trying to plug these releases here but I feel a strong obligation to have finds of really great importance be re-issued right away.

So what in store for the future? What projects are you working on? Any trips planned back to Africa?

I'm working on a string of re-issues and compilations. The Psychedelic Aliens and the Marijata records will hit the market within the next few months and I'm going back to Africa once or twice every year. I might even move back there sometime not too far in the future. To be honest, NYC can seem as a relatively dull and boring place in comparison.

Where are your upcoming parties, for those who want to experience exactly what makes a Voodoo Funk party the best?

My next parties are this coming Sunday August 15th at Brooklyn's Fire Proof And I'm spinning in Washington DC on Saturday August 21st at the Dahlak Restaurant.

Are you available for bookings?

Always! E-mail me anytime at frank@voodoofunk.com for bookings.


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