Our Crate Diggers series profiles record collectors around the world.
Having lived in Thailand, Yemen and Pakistan, Chris Menist’s knowledge of Asian and Arabian nuggets is second to none. Bursting with exotic rarities and unusual treasures, his record collection tells the story of adventures abroad, as we found out when we visited his south London home.
Interview: Amar Ediriwira / Photography: Michael Wilkin
What are your early memories of records?
When I was a kid, maybe 11 years old, I used to buy records from a Woolworths on the way back from school. There was the Top 40 but at that point there was also the Top 100. If you went down to number 90, there was all sorts of weird stuff being made on major labels. They were trying to sell it as pop music but it was never gonna happen. I would occasionally find these strange new wave records or obscure pop records that would inevitably not get bought and be on sale for 50 pence.
Was there an especially formative record for you?
Hip-hop was the big thing for me. A friend of mine recorded a programme off Capital Radio and they played ‘Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel’ by Grandmaster Flash and then ‘Lesson 1’ by Double Dee and Steinski. He brought his cassette player into school and played it to me. If you can imagine, I lived in Beaconsfield at that time, where there’s no obvious connection with any type of American or hip-hop culture or anything like. Occasionally you might see something on the television but suddenly there was this crazy music on the radio. What does this mean? What is all this about? So then that begins the journey of finding out more – I’m going to go down the shop and ask who’s Grandmaster Flash and do you have any records by him? From there it’s Sugar Hill and a whole load of other artists, and suddenly you’re into independent American music.
I’d have heard this stuff in maybe ’83 or ’84 and then from ’85 to ’89, I was saving up my pocket money and coming up to London for the first time and discovering there was a whole world of import shops like Groove Records, Spin Offs, Blue Bird, Hitman Records in Soho. Little by little I was building up this understanding of a world of music completely out of the commercial mainstream.
What about ’80s hip-hop attracted you to it?
Obviously hip-hop today is very commercial: it’s this behemoth of music that’s dominant in the world over. But at that point you would rarely hear hip-hop on the radio and people would say that it wasn’t music – they’re not singing, there’s no tune, there’s no verse-chorus-verse, it’s not three minutes long. The music was quite brutal in a way, it was drum machines and rapping or very crude sampling. I felt very drawn to that. It’s got this energy plus it’s talking about subject matters which I personally didn’t understand. For me, that’s what prompted me to learn about the Nation of Islam or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. It felt like the Civil Rights movement compressed into music, which was something I wasn’t being taught in school. This music’s come from somewhere and wanted to find out where and why.
And that curiousity led you into record collecting?
I suppose I am a record collector by default of the fact that I have a lot of records.
Is there something uncomfortable about the phrase?
I think it’s got connotations that I’m not always entirely comfortable with. A lot of collectors are very snobbish, they look down on people who just are happy listening to Radio One in their car or whatever. There’s an elitism about it and it can become very trophy led. For me there’s an element of collecting, where it stops being about the music. The raison d’être of the collector is to acquire more trophies. That doesn’t appeal to me.
Does that mean you’re unbothered by things like first pressings?
From a sound pressing point of view I do have an interest. For example mono Blue Note first pressings that are cut by Rudy Van Gelder sound bloody amazing. You put that on that next to an ’80s stereo pressing and the mono sounds better. Simple as that. To that extent I am into first pressings but unfortunately – unless you were collecting those back in the day – these records can be up to two hundred, three hundred pounds each, sometimes more than that. Personally I can’t afford to do that. And even if I could, having had the experience of going somewhere [Thailand] and discovering a whole raft of music that was accessible and not very expensive, I don’t really feel comfortable with just shelling out hundreds of pounds on records.
How many records do you own?
I’ve estimated it, it’s gotta be about four or five thousand records in total.
Do you organise your collection?
I tend to do it by genres and that’s it. So… Thai, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Yemeni, and then jazz, soul, funk, whatever. But alphabetising it would be pointless. This is the thing I’m always pulling them out and playing them. The idea of putting it all back afterwards is…
Yes, incredibly boring. Maybe that’s the problem I have with the whole collecting thing. It’s that level of geekiness that’s unappealing.
It’s not stamp collecting, is it?
Well, unfortunately for some people that is exactly what it is. And it’s very male.
It is very male. What’s that about?
I don’t know. I know some female collectors but they’re slightly different about it. If I’m honest I know some male collectors that are very difficult to be around. I feel very lucky that my focus is Asian music because there’s not really many people collecting it so I don’t get into silly rivalries or arguments with people.
What is it about the format that’s attractive?
The format’s a bloody pain.
That’s not what we want to hear…
[Laughs] Well it is. Whenever I move house and I’ve got to box up all these bloody records, I always ask myself why I collect records. It would be much easier if it were all on a hard drive. I travel quite a lot and DJ, so in practical terms packing up all these records, putting them in bag and hoping they make it out the other side isn’t great. You can be carrying £2000 worth of vinyl at any one point, it’s not ideal. That said, there’s whole swathes of music that are not available in the digital realm. The bulk of the Thai stuff I have for instance doesn’t exist online. Certain things have been uploaded but even then you have to be able to type Thai to find it. So the only way to get it really, is to find it in its original format. I end up liking records because that’s the only way you’re going to hear the music.
All the collecting I’ve done has been in conjunction with travelling really. I’ve tended to work around the world, so in my spare time I’ll look for music, especially if I’m new somewhere and I don’t have a social life at that point. I love those experiences of going to places and meeting people. It’s never just about turning up somewhere, getting my records and leaving.
Tell us about your adventures in Thailand.
Well before Thailand, me and my family lived in Pakistan. It was around the time when President Pervez Musharraf’s rule was coming to an end. He’d made a couple of quite big mistakes – there was the big Red Mosque incident, there was the Lawyers’ Movement and he’d misjudged things. As a result the security in the country started to slide. As was the case with a few people, we had visa issues and we had to leave.
Had you picked up Pakistani records while you were there?
I actually bought all my Pakistani records from a collector in Tottenham! On three occasions I had trips planned to go to Lahore but they always got postponed because there were security incidents and because I worked for an NGO it was especially important to abide by the rules.
In the end, it became too difficult to stay in Pakistan. My wife is a teacher, so she looked for some jobs online and one came up in Thailand. We didn’t want to move back to England just yet, so we thought why not. And that’s how I ended up in Thailand – it’s a wonderfully dull and practical reason.
Initially when I was there for the first month, I wasn’t working because I was getting our two little boys settled in. It was a big thing for them: new country, new climate, new diet, new everything. I had some free time so I decided to find some records because that’s what I do. When I was a kid, we moved around quite a lot and I’d always get out the Yellow Pages to locate the record shops in a new town to get my frame of reference.
So that’s what I did in Thailand. I was pretty sure I was going to find good music – even at that point I had knowledge of the huge interest in surf music in South East Asia in the ’60s. That’s how it started – turning up somewhere with a portable record player and going through piles and piles of stuff.
Was it tricky not knowing the language?
Initially I went for LPs because there are visual references which makes it easier. With 7″s it’s just a bunch of writing I can’t understand. It could be the best record on earth it could be the worse thing known to humanity. So I think I resisted going to 7″s at first because I knew that the only way to do it was to basically listen to every bloody record in the shop. When I eventually moved on to the 7″s, it was a case of starting at one end and going through everything systemically. Even as I started to understand some of the language it wasn’t that helpful. There are no dates or information about the band or producer. All the pointers I’d grown up with were absent. The only way to do it was to listen to everything and that’s what I did.
What did you find?
A lot of morlam music, which is basically country music from the north east of Thailand. People in the shop laughed at me. I mean not in a malicious way but the thing is, in general, a fair amount of Bangkok Thais look down at people from the country. These guys were the hicks and their music wasn’t considered sophisticated. So here’s this foreigner asking for this music. When other collectors came in, they’d be listening to their Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand records, slightly bewildered by me.
What did you like about morlam?
You just hear something you like. That in a sense was the beauty of it. I didn’t have a want list, I didn’t have any prior knowledge, I don’t even have some inkling of what I was going to hear.
Initially when I first starting hearing luk thung music, for example, some of it reminded me of some Ethiopian records I was familiar with. Something about the arrangement, the chord changes. I suppose that was an entry point and then as time went by, and as I dug a little deeper, I realised that there actually is a connection. Between the Arab peninsula and the Swahili coast, Malaysia and Indonesia, there was this circular trade across the Indian Ocean, where ideas, music and things were being swapped over a two or three hundred year period. So actually the idea of music from Thailand and music from Ethiopia sounding similar is not so outlandish.
Give us an example.
Take this Ethiopian record, it’s called ‘Etet Beredeng’ by Aster Aweke. There’s something about the horns – it’s not exactly the same but for me it has a similar vibe to, say, this Thai record ‘Nom Samai Mai’ by Saknatee Srichiangmai, which bizarrely enough is about castigating women for not breastfeeding their kids. Let me translate a bit for you: Cow milk/ Camel milk/ Any other milk except yours.
Play us something else from Thailand
Here’s another Thai record with amusing lyrics. This one’s Panom Nopporn’s ‘Sao Ban Pok Pab’ and the man singing is complaining that a girl’s not paying him any attention. He’s trying to invite her over for a meal of rice and pickled fish and she’s not having it.
Do you have any super rare or expensive Thai records?
That one I just mentioned is both. I found two copies in an amazing night market in Bangkok. It’s like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve there, it’s utterly mental for nearly 24 hours. Everyone’s selling stuff, there’s food and drinks – it’s like a normal market day but it just happens to be after dark. There was this one seller who must have had access to a radio station because he was always bringing these boxes with double copies of stuff. I remember hearing that record and thinking that it soundsed amazing on the headphones before getting back home and realising it was killer. I sold a copy to a friend of mine, thinking I’d find it again but I haven’t since.
Play us something from Pakistan.
‘Har Sham Guzaro Happy Happy’ by Shazia and Others is a really beautiful Pakistani record from the movie Zubaida. People are very amenable to Bollywood music, but were very surprised when the first Finders Keepers comps on Pakistan came out because culturally-speaking Pakistan has been sidelined as far as the Western world is concerned. It’s the way things are portrayed in the media. In reality it’s a pretty pluralistic culture and the music reflects that.
Could you share another record with us?
‘Ala Asfuri’ – Rofiqoh Dharto Wahab. This record has these haunting Arab vocals. It’s from Malaysia and this style of music Gambus comes directly from Yemen. One of the biggest regions of Yemen is Hadramawt. And lots of the coastal towns of Hadramawt were important trade ports and very cosmopolitan. A large amount of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia descended from Hadramawti Yemenis that came over with the coffee and spice trades, maybe 300 years ago.
You’ve been involved with comp’ing a lot of music from around the world, right?
Andy Votel and I put together Pakistani comps Sounds Of Wonder, Disco Dildar and Life Is Dance, all on Finders Keepers. With Maft Sai, I did Thai? Dai! also Finders Keepers, as well as Sound of Siam Volumes 1 + 2 on Soundway. Then there’s Qat, Coffee and Qambus on Dust to Digital and of course several singles on Paradise Bangkok and the comp Paradise Bangkok: The Album.
What was your motivation for them?
I guess all these experiences are quite personal for me. It’s sort of like I’ve been to this country and here’s an overview of what I heard. And with all this stuff, for me, it’s presenting a much more accurate overview of 20th century music than the one which we’re often sold.
Do you care for the Western canon?
Yeah, I’ve got a good collection of jazz records for example. It’s the foundation of my musical understanding I suppose. But when I was living in Asia for 5 years I became very absorbed in the music I was collecting and hearing. You’re in a place where the language is different, the sounds are different, the climate’s different – and you’re living in the place where the music came from. It becomes very consuming.
I remember coming bac k[to London] after a few months and staying at a friend’s house who has a huge collection of American R&B and jazz and reggae – he was playing some of his new finds and all that music suddenly sounded weird because my ears became so used to a bunch of other sounds or ways of making music. When I came back [for good] I didn’t want to lose that, and default back to what I had listened to before. In fact, all electronic music sounded shit to me and anything to with four to the floor just sounded like marching music. Over time though, I became comfortable with both.
Do you buy contemporary electronic music now? I can see the new Floating Points and James Holden record peeping out there.
I was in Phonica yesteday and there’s loads of great stuff. It’s dangerous. My wife’s already pissed enough that I’ve got her nice cabinet taken over with records. I’ve got the latest thing on Deep Medi, which is great. Some of the experimental stuff on L.I.E.S. is fantastic. That new Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm is beautiful record. The new Beatrice Dillon is also brilliant. That’s just a handful of the amazing music coming out at the moment.
Speaking more generally, would you describe yourself as a keeper or a future seller?
I’m always selling stuff. It depends though – for example all my hip hop from back in the day, I don’t listen to it anymore but I’m never going to sell it. It means a lot to me personally even if I don’t necessarily check it. Certain things I’ll recycle though.
Do you think one day you might just sell the whole lot?
I guess it depends on my kids. Ultimately it will be their present/burden depending on how they look at it. If they’re really into music and they like it then obviously they’ll get it. If they’re not interested in records, if they’re content with Spotify or whatever, then I’d probably sell a chunk of it and put the money aside for them. Some of the Thai and Yemeni stuff, I might offer to the British Library because in some instances these are the only copies that exist and I think there’s a value to preserving it.
If your house was burning down and you could only save one record what would it have to be?
It would probably have to be one at the front because I’d be running out of the bloody house! But imagine I could put time in pause.. is there one record? Oh man, what a horrible, horrible, horrible question that is. What would it be? I don’t know… I think it’d probably be a Thai record. Probably, emblematically, it would be that Panom Nopporn record. It’s not because it’s the greatest record I’ve got, instead I think it captures that period of my life. There are a lot of memories attached to this record.
Have you got a favourite album cover?
I’ve never considered that question. I’ll have to make one up now. It could be this Art Blakey record. I don’t think I even listened to the music initially. I just saw it on a website, both volumes were quite cheap and I knew it would be great. A Message From Blakey? Whatever the message is, I want to hear it!
As I understand it, the record was made after hours. They’d done a session, it was 2am, and the studio was full of musicians – and they decided to cut another album. They dropped two volumes in six hours, off the back, and it sounds amazing. It’s recorded in the ’50s and it still sounds phenomenal over half a century later. I think it says a lot about the creative process. There’s obviously different ways of making music but there’s something about that immediacy.
As for the cover. Reid Miles is one of the most influential of graphic artists of the past hundred years. It’s a great photo with Blakey just enjoying himself, listening to the playback or whatever he’s doing. He’s got a fag in one hand, his mate’s playing a thumb piano behind I think. And there’s these little graphic touches with the circles, it’s like he’s sprinkling magic or it somehow captures his movement. It’s so simple. Even if you take out that graphic element it would still be a great photograph. People wax lyrical about Blue Note covers and for good reason too.
Can you share a strange or unusual digging experience with us?
The first day I was in Yemen I went to the market in the old town. There was a group of young lads there and they were offering me jewellery and other bits to buy, which I said no to. One of them asked what I was looking for. To make it easier I always just take a record with me – because if you say you’re looking for music, you generally get cassettes or CDs. So I pulled out this 7″ and this kid said his friend had some up the road. Sure enough his friend had a load of second hand records. I struck up a bit of a friendship with the kid. He said he knew everyone in the market and that he would find records for me.
So this is what would happen – I’d be in the [NGO] office and I’d get a phone call from him. While everyone else went home to watch cable TV or write more reports, I’d hop in a cab and go downtown and he’d take me to these different sellers. He quickly cottoned on to what I wanted. There was even one time when I was about to buy a record and he nudged me and shook his head. He’d noticed a hairline crack in the record which I hadn’t seen. This kid was 15 or 16, and super quick. He quickly clocked the type of music I was into and he understood about condition.
One day he told me about a wealthy, prominent family in the market. The father apparently had some really amazing old records and was selling them. This man was apparently a kind of fixer in the market. We went to this his shop where there was a whole line of sort of petitioners, people asking for favours. This guy dealt in jambiyas which are like the ceremonial daggers that people wear as a fashion accessory. Some of these are made from rhino horn and can cost up to 70 grand, much to my astonishment.
You have to step down into these shops so I was sitting in there cross-legged on the ground. There was wall to wall knives and a large crowd of people all looking at this strange foreigner with his portable record player. I didn’t feel unsafe but it was just a little bit weird.
The man was a big guy, friendly but a little scary if I’m honest. He had two telephones that he was constantly talking into and some of his family were in there chewing khat. So I started listening to the records, thinking these are really good but the condition was quite bad. During my time there, he kept leaning over, saying what he probably thought were reassuring words, which I was finding a bit unnerving. Things like, “You know, friendship is friendship, business is business, okay?”
I got through everything and picked out the records I was interested in. Him and my friend have this long conversation, all in Arabic. Eventually the man asks me how much I want to pay. I replied saying that they’re his records, he should tell me how much he wants. There was a bit more discussion until he named his “special” price of $50 each. If these had been mint, I’d have certainly bought a few of them but lots of them were very scuffed and scratched so I politely declined. He then asked me to name a price. The situation had become a little bit tense. I told him that the price I wanted to pay was probably too low, and I didn’t want to offend him and I apologised for wasting his time. He shook my hand really tightly with these piercing eyes and said “Everything’s fine, there’s no problem”. So I left and said to my friend, “Is everything fine?” He reassured me that it was.
We were just about to hail a cab when my friend gets a phone call. It was apparently one of the man’s sons who was keen to sell them to me for whatever price I could pay. Something about the situation didn’t sit well with me – I was worried that my friend would ultimately get blamed so I told him to leave it.
I wonder about whether he’s okay now, especially in the light of everything that’s going on in Yemen at the moment. There’s someone that’s super bright and quick. Put him in another situation, he’s going to be a successful entrepreneur or something, but in Yemen he’s probably not going to get the chance to do that. It very much underlines how unfair the world is, so it’s a funny memory but at the same time it’s a sad one.
Check out Chris’ next two releases:
Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band 12″ ‘Lam San Ra’ on Studio Lam. Out Of Addis LP by Various Artists on Eastern Connection.