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.
Thanx for this amazing story to dustandgrooves.com !!!