Sixty-year-old Michael Ongany remembers his vinyl player with nostalgia.
“It was your uncle who took it to Nairobi for repair in 1990,” he says to his children, looking at the packed cartons with old vinyl records.
The collection of 14-inch vinyl records comprises East Africa’s favourite oldies including Franco Luambo Makiadi and Tabu Ley. It is easy to relate to the grandeur the vinyl records offer today, as it was back then for my dad.
Some of the records are still tucked away in clean polythene bags.
“It was the in-thing back then,” says James Rugami, founder of Real Vinyl Guru, based in Kenyatta Market, Nairobi.
Mr Rugami’s entry into the business was purely for entrepreneurial purposes. Over time it grew into passion and later more of an obsession, one that has seen him attract attention from all over the world and even the interest of international media.
“I started collecting music after trying out other business ventures for a while. Everybody was doing the same thing. Music was my way out. And so after selling clothes for a while I started a small music kiosk in Meru town in 1987 where I sold vinyl records that I collected,” recalls James.
He adds: “I have travelled all over East Africa to collect some of the old records including from music shops that are closing.”
Fast forward to 2017, almost 20 years later, James is the last man standing in the vinyl records game. Apart from him he can name only one other person selling vinyl records. However, he’s the sole provider of vinyl record player repair services in East Africa.
With his two technicians, whom he fondly calls ‘engineers’, James repairs dozens of players in a store adjacent to the shop. The music industry then, run by young people, is the same but different in terms of taste and appreciation.
Yes, there’s a renaissance of vinyl records all over the world, but can people tell the difference between vinyl record players and their music systems now?
“Piracy combined with technology destroyed music,” James explains.
James proceeds to pull out a record from the dozens stacked up alongside each other in shelves on the back wall. On the front end of the shop are all kinds of vinyl record players. Akai and JVC brands are notable.
After playing a record in very low volume on the vintage JVC player, he plays an .mp3 music file from his computer desktop, the only digital machine in the shop.
The difference in clarity and tone is distinct. The words on the vintage player are quite audible, with the background instruments sharp enough at two-point-stop of the volume knob.
On the other hand, you can barely hear anything other than the base beat from the .mp3 playing on the digital HP desktop using desktop speakers, at less than 10per cent of the volume control.
The largest revenue for the shop comes from selling of repairs of the vintage players. The players go for anything between Sh30,000 to Sh300,000. As James puts it the older, the better. Better of course being code for, the more expensive.
“I have a record in the shop that was pressed in 1921 and is in mint condition. The records can last for generations if preserved well. The lifetime of a CD disc is barely 4 years,” adds James.
With everything in the cloud now, and with streaming music being the in-thing, it’s scary to think our generation will never own a piece of music that they can pass on to the next generations.
However, since 2007, there has been a marked rise in the use of vinyl, especially in the Western world. Internationally, the music industry is excited about vinyl records because of its steady rise in sales over the years. According to UK website Gramophone, of all music sold in 2014, 1.5per cent was on vinyl. Though it’s lower than it was two decades ago at 1.6per cent, the excitement is on the upward trajectory of vinyl records over the last decade. Music labels such as Sony and Universal have re-entered the vinyl records with re-issues of classical albums.
According to James, there are a number of DJs using vinyl records in Nairobi.
“DJ E who spins at Vineyard alongside DJ Smollz, DJ Kim Nickdee and DJ Moh just to mention a few,” says Dj Kronikx, an upcoming DJ in Nairobi at the popular Brew Bistro, Ngong’ road.
According to DJ Kronikx, there has been chatter on how the sound in vinyl is better and the artistic part of it but it doesn’t necessarily translate much into Djs and Artists pocket.
James does not predict a complete overhaul of the system but a shake-up in how things will occur or should occur in future.
“I would have loved to import a printing press and start re-producing some of the favourites in East Africa. I have travelled far and wide to collect some of these rare records. I would love that to go on long after us. But I don’t own the rights to re-produce records so that’s already a legal hurdle. But if we came together, nothing is impossible,” he concludes.