Jul 18, 2013

For the Record: African Funk with Taran Escobar-Ausman

Written by DJ Jerry Nice who is a vinyl junkie; no ifs, and buts about it. The Frisco resident's collection started back in ’93 when he started purchasing grunge and rap tapes. It eventually turned into a vinyl addiction that’s been going strong for over ten years now. 

Although discovering rare records is attractive enough, Nice also looks forward to meeting people who are just as passionate about records as he is. With that in mind, Jerry and FRANK present For the Record, a column about all things wax-related.

Before meeting Taran Escobar-Ausman, I didn’t know much about African music aside from a handful of classic Fela Kuti tracks and the occasional random compilation. With that said, my understanding of music from this area of the world was limited, to say the least. Being constantly immersed in music over the years, it’s not as easy to throw me off guard as it once was. Sure enough, Taran and his insanely deep knowledge of West African records did just that.

I was at a record swap near downtown San Francisco, and aside from the great mix of genres present, Taran and his bright, handmade signs attracted my attention immediately. He was very forward with sharing knowledge on each record, and was more than happy to let me listen firsthand. After briefly explaining my taste in music, he recommended the Ezbee Family’s Chics & Chicken LP. The second the needle dropped on the title track, I was hooked.

From that moment on, Taran has hipped me to some amazing music that I have a hard time leaving without. Everything is refreshingly original, and always on point. However, due to the rarity of this music, much of the Western world doesn’t have the pleasure of experiencing it firsthand.

Just like these records, Taran is a rare breed. His dedication and passion for the genre has opened ears across the Bay Area, and has several people like myself hooked to the funk from West Africa. I recently caught up with the man himself to talk about this genre in detail, his personal favorites, and the ever-difficult cleaning process involved throughout.

West African funk is a very niche (and extremely rare) genre to specialize in. How did you first get hooked on this music, and how did this turn into becoming a dealer?

Well, I was aware of Fela Kuti from early on, which completely blew my mind and drove my parents nuts. You could say I was hooked then, but it took a while before I realized the true breadth of West African music. I became aware of a few more artists through some low budget European comps sent to a record store I worked at but I didn’t completely dive into the genre until I found a $1 highlife record at my local library. I came across a mint copy of an early Oliver De Coque LP, a Nigerian originator of the Ogene style of highlife¬—very upbeat with fast guitar work, which clued me into the fact that there was much more going on in this region then I realized and I knew I needed to hear it all.

Remembering my past discoveries, I knew it was time to find out more and started to do some research. The breadth and diversity of music recorded throughout West Africa between the ’50s and ’80s is truly astonishing. Even more unbelievable is that for the most part, much of it is still buried (in some cases, literally) in obscurity. One discovery leads to another and soon a whole new world of music opens up.

This research eventually led to an opportunity to buy records in bulk, which seemed like the best way to get my hands on as many records as possible. It required a lot of work on my part to sustain a habit that was quickly growing into an addiction. It was at this point when I started Fat Headphones African Wax, hoping to share some of the wonderful and beautiful music from this region.

From all the stories I’ve heard, dealing with vinyl from Africa can be very difficult at times due to the condition they originally arrive in. Are most of the records as dirty as speculated, or is this just a myth?

Definitely no myth there! The records arrive from dirty to extremely dirty—we’re talking gloves-and-well-ventilated-room dirty. Many of the records are covered in red clay dirt that gets its color from the iron present in the local soil. There is a lot of mold present on the wax itself and some of the covers. Any bit of moisture that becomes trapped during the vinyl’s storage will make any soil or mold sitting there harden and is difficult to remove and gentle scraping is usually required. It’s pretty satisfying to bring a piece of wax back to life, though there are causalities from time to time. Bowl warps are the saddest things to see, as it usually happens to the cleanest copies. It’s common for these records to be stored in stacks hundreds of records high!

It has been noted that there isn’t a strong culture of preservation in Nigeria and other West African nations of media artifacts, which makes it difficult for the record enthusiast, really makes the verb “digging” earn its meaning.

When we first met, I was really impressed with not only the amount of pieces for sale, but also the presentation. Everything was in a nice sleeve, and the records looked like they’d been cleaned like crazy. When they first arrive, what is your process for getting them in this condition?

Yes, the process is a time-consuming labor of love. First, I have to rinse each record to get any loose dirt and mold off. Then I spray a special cleaning “cocktail” on the vinyl and let it soak for a bit before scrubbing it down with a record brush. After that I rinse, dab dry, and let the record air dry. If it’s really soiled, I may have to repeat the process with a different cleaner. Now that Side A is clean, I flip it and repeat!

I also wipe the sleeves clean with baby wipes. Then I have to sleeve them, play grade each one, and price them. The first thing to go, as they lay somewhere forgotten are the covers, which become paper thin and fragile. They don’t do much to actually hold a piece of wax any longer, so putting them in poly-sleeves comes out of necessity.

Are there any favorites in particular you’ve discovered over the years?
The Funkees are the band all other Afro-funk rock bands looked up to for their professionalism and the consistency in their output. These guys can go from in-the-pocket soul-funk grooves to pastoral English folk-rock, all infused with African polyrhythms, in seconds. Now I’m a Man is my favorite album by them, as it has all the best elements of their sound.  

You can’t talk about West African music without mentioning the mighty Poly-Rythmo. I’m quite stuck on this 7” of theirs at the moment. The drums of Leopold Yehouessi are always a treat, but it’s the way Poly puts together different elements making it all work, and it always comes out soulful and funky.

Most people aren’t up on music from this particular section of the world, due to the physical location of these records. In your opinion, what is it about this region that hooks people in the first place?

Well…good question. I think one obvious factor is Fela Kuti’s music. His legacy has brought a lot of attention to Nigeria and the region, at least among music enthusiasts, over the past 10 years. Also, in my opinion, West Africa has played the most prominent role in the transatlantic musical conversation between Africa and America.

In short, you can follow the Griots of West Africa to the blues musicians of the Reconstruction era; then from the blues to jazz. From blues and jazz you’re led to rock and soul. Soul leads to funk, funk to hip-hop, and so on (this is overly simplified for time’s sake). This was and is Africa speaking to America.

In the late ’60s/early ’70s, the States started to speak back, as musicians from Nigeria and Ghana started listening to rock, soul, and funk acts from the US and Britain. These West African bands took these styles and incorporated various native rhythms (vodoun, sato, etc.) that populated the region into a new breed of aural pleasures: Afro-funk, Afro-boogie, Afro-psych…well, you see the pattern.
Anyways, the point being here that when listening to this music you can hear all these elements being mixed and synthesized together producing something familiar, but just off-kilter and distinct enough to make listeners come back for more. That, and it makes you dance.


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