Frank Gossner: The archaeologist of African vinyl
- 20 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
A German DJ has become an archaeologist of funk. He travels around Africa searching for old, unwanted and often mouldering LPs, gets them reissued and then plays them at his gigs around the world.
It was in the US 10 years ago that Frank Gossner got hooked on African vinyl. He was rifling through a stack of 200 or 300 records from the Nigerian Tabansi record label in Philadelphia, when he came across "a crazy really psychedelic Afrobeat" disc by Ghanaian musician Pax Nicholas.
"I really got into that record," he says. He tried searching for more like it, but it wasn't easy. The internet proved to be no help. "In a few months, I decided to pack up and leave and move to West Africa," he says.
Gossner started out in Conakry, the capital of Guinea in 2005, only to discover, fairly quickly, that vinyl was ancient history there.
"It actually pretty much happened overnight in Africa that LPs got replaced by music cassettes," he says. "Within only a short amount of time basically there was no more market interest." A single 20-foot container in Conakry was the only official vinyl store he found in West Africa.
But after a while, he began to locate hoards of vinyl records that had been thrown into storage and forgotten - in back rooms, "half-bombed government buildings" and abandoned warehouses.
One find in Nigeria was sensational. It was in the basement of a building owned by a hotelier who had run a record label and a chain of record shops. When LPs became obsolete he had shovelled his stock into the huge space. Records and debris filled the 10ft-high room to a depth of 6ft. Gossner and his friends waded through them, trying not damage any that were salvageable.
"The windows, most of them were broken so you had insects coming in and nesting within those records. It was just like a tsunami of vinyl that flooded the entire space, there was no rhyme or reason, no kind of sorting and no way to get around.
"It was so hot in there too. During the rainy season it gets so humid and so wet that you have mould growth. And then it gets dry again, and then the mould eats away at the paper and the cardboard. This process happens year after year after year - mould, wet and then everything gets dry again, brittle and it starts falling to dust.
"So after two or three decades, you're fanning all the dust and most dangerously the mould spores into your face and inhaling them and that can seriously make you ill, that's why I was running around with a dust mask."
In photographs on his blog, Gossner looks like a scuba-diver plunging into a vinyl sea.
One way Gossner located records was by making posters with the brightly coloured covers of the albums he was looking for - plus large "WANTED!" signs and his contact information.
It was this way that he came across a record by a Ghanaian band, the Psychedelic Aliens. Band leader Malek Crayem saw Gossner's poster and made contact. The upshot was that in 2010, Gossner got the band's Psycho African Beat album released by Academy LPs in Brooklyn, whose owner Mike Davis describes it as "quite a soup" of American garage, psychedelic, soul and African rhythm.
When Gossner showed them the cover of their re-released record the following year, he was moved to see their reaction.
Gossner also eventually found the artist whose record had initially sparked his quest for African vinyl - Pax Nicholas - and in the last place he would have expected... Berlin, the city where he had begun his career as a DJ in the early 90s.
Nicholas told him about his time as a percussionist with Fela Kuti, the famously rebellious Nigerian musician. He was there when 1,000 Nigerian troops stormed Kuti's commune in Lagos in 1977, in retaliation for a record called Zombie, in which Kuti had likened soldiers to robots.
Gossner arranged for Nicholas's album Pax Nicholas and the Nettey Family to be reissued with Daptone Records also in Brooklyn. On this record his musical style is like Kuti's, Gossner says, but a little more subdued, a little deeper, not as in your face.
Gossner has also hired helpers on the ground in West Africa, including Kennedy Dankyi-Appah, from Ghana, who is too young to have listened to vinyl himself, but remembers his father and uncle enjoying some of the records on Gossner's list.
People didn't get why they were so keen on records that they themselves were throwing out - "they thought we were crazy," he says. Some suspected they were reselling the discs for profit.
In one crazy adventure from Benin across the border into Nigeria, his bus broke down, so he took a car, but that broke down too, so he ended up completing the trip to source a rare record on the back of a "scary" motorcycle.
Altogether, Gossner has organised reissues of a couple of dozen African albums. Any money the label is willing to pay goes back to the original artists, most of whom stopped performing long ago. Gossner doesn't profit except from the sale of a few promo copies.
He says he does it mostly for fun, and to promote himself as a DJ.
He has faced some criticism.
"The thought of a European going into Africa and buying what they see as very limited and locally valued resources - for a lot of people this might seem exploitative," he says. "If you don't really know anything about the topic then you might even agree on it."
He says he is just trying to save the music.
"I'm rather doing something good by going there, salvaging what is still available," he says. "Because if you don't buy it then it will get lost."
Gossner takes his African records around the world. To Hanoi, for example.
"That really made me feel like an ambassador of music, you know, to bring something from one culture, from one continent to some place that is so completely different, he says. "And then to see Vietnamese hipsters dance to this music that they've never heard, that literally comes from the other end of the world, really made me feel incredible."
Most photos in audioslideshow provided by Frank Gossner. Additional photography courtesy Eilon Paz author of Dust and Grooves - Adventures in Record Collecting, to be published in April.
1."No condition is permanent" from album This is Marijata by artist Marijata, Academy LPs 2012
2."Na teef know de road of teef" from album Pax Nicholas and the Nettey Family by artist Pax Nicholas, Daptone Records 2009
3."Gbe Keke Wo Taoo" from album Psycho African Beat by artist Psychedelic Aliens, Academy LPs 2010