• The world’s best record shops #130: Melodica Music Stores, Nairobi

    By | November 3, 2018

    Inside the Kenyan institution.

    Every week, we pick out one must-visit spot from a different city around the world with photos and a little bit of history. Think of it as a kind of 1000 places to see before you die for record shops.

    For almost fifty years, Melodica has been a cornerstone of the Kenyan music scene, growing from a record shop into one of the most prolific labels and publishers in East Africa.

    Melodica Music Stores


    Location: Ground floor, Elimu Co-operative House, Tom Mboya St, Nairobi, Kenya

    Go for: East and central African music from the 1950s – 90s.

    What’s the story? You’ll be hard pressed to find a person as enthusiastic for what they do as Abdul Karim of Nairobi’s Melodica Record store. Inheriting the shop from his father, Daudia Pravinlal, who opened his first music shop in 1952 in what Karim calls “a small, one horse town in Kenya”, Melodica was later established in 1971. Now it’s a cornerstone for east and central African music, encompassing a publisher, a record shop and multiple record labels.

    “Imagine a perfect sunshine day in Nairobi,” says Karim, painting a picture of life at Melodica. “Day in and day out, it’s a beautiful day. The first customer comes early in the morning. He has a tune, a song in his memory, he’s come so far and he hums a tune and any tune from our region we find it and provide. It is always a pleasure to serve our folks.”

    From its birth in 1971, Melodica was the leading producer of vinyl in the region, until the pressing companies were phased out around the late-’80s. Still, in that time Melodica released some absolute gems: Bana Ngenge, Kakuta, Orch. Conga International and many more.

    On any given day eager collectors rifle through the racks to find rarities that can only be discovered within the walls of Melodica. Found within the bustle of Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street in the centre of the city, Melodica boast an Aladdin’s cave of records from the 1950s to 1990s. “It was real, it had soul,” says Karim of those 40 years of African music. “It had a message. It was universal. It was humane.”

    The kind folks at Melodica have put together a playlist of their favourites and hidden gems, a mix of Luo blues from Kenyan’s Western highlands, Taraab from the Indian ocean coast, and a fast-paced style called Cavacha from the Congo. Dive in here.

  • This vinyl and magazine project is uncovering forgotten musical genres from around the world

    By | October 3, 2017

    Discover traditional Kenyan Benga music in its first issue.

    New record and accompanying print publication FLEE is shining a light on “unfairly forgotten music phenomena”.

    Read next: The vinyl man of Kenyatta market

    Each issue will focus on a specific period or genre, and includes a limited edition 12″, featuring traditional songs alongside reworks by contemporary musicians, alongside a silk-screened magazine with in-depth articles, interviews, photographs and original artwork.

    The inaugural FLEE Issue n°1 : Benga – A Signature Genre from Kenya is an audio visual “tribute to the timeless Kenyan genre of benga and a contribution to the long history of East African music,” says FLEE.

    “It was as important for us to have contemporary musicians working on original songs, as it was to give visual artists the opportunity to re-invent the iconography of ’70s Kenya with their design.”

    The LP includes “rare recordings of the genre’s forefathers (Daniel Owino Misiani, George Ramogi and the Migori Superstars), as well as re-interpretations produced by Jaakko Eino Kalevi, Africaine 808, Nik Weston and Rudy’s Midnight Machine”, with artwork by Olka Osadzińska.

    FLEE Issue n°1 : Benga – A Signature Genre from Kenya is out 9th October 2017. Pre-order a copy here, listen to C.K. Jazz Band’s ‘Rapar Wuon Osimbo’ and check out the track list below.


    Side A

    1. Daniel Owino Misiani – Otieno Owing Ramogi
    2. C.K. Jazz Band – Rapar Wuon Osimbo
    3. Migori Superstars – Anyango Maggy

    Side B

    1. Daniel Owino Misiani – Otieno Owing Ramogi (Nik Weston & RUdy’s Midnight Machine edit)
    2. C.K. Jazz Band – Rapar Wuon Osimbo (Jaakko Eino Kalevi edit)
    3. Migori Superstars – Anyango Maggy (Africaine 808 edit)

  • The world’s best record shops #080: Jimmy’s, Nairobi

    By | September 9, 2017

    The vinyl man of Kenyatta market.

    Every week, we pick out one must-visit spot from a different city around the world with photos and a little bit of history. Think of it as a kind of 1000 places to see before you die for record shops.

    Our first visit to East Africa, and it had to be at the table of the inimitable Jimmy Rugami. Following last year’s in-depth interview, we thought it was only right for the man at Stall 570 in Nairobi’s bustling Kenyatta Market to join our global record shop journey.

    Jimmy’s, Stall 570, Kenyatta Market

    Location: Shop No. 570, Kenyatta Market, Ngummo, Nairobi, Kenya

    Go for: East African 7″s and local originals

    What’s the story? For close to twenty years, James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami has been selling music in between the stalls of beef and goat meat at Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market. One of the few in the city who still deal in vinyl, Jimmy has weathered the decline in record sales with remarkable resourcefulness, often travelling to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar to stock up on cassettes and wax.

    His shop now almost exclusively sells vinyl, a combination of old Western music and a large collection of East African 7″s and some 12”s. One side is where the albums are kept, while the other houses a large collection of singles. Dive into one of the corners and you’ll find Kenyan originals, divided into the various local languages: Swahili, Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, and Luhya.

    Something of a local legend, Jimmy has now gained an international following courtesy of initiatives like Santuri Safari and patronage from DJs and producers like Esa and Auntie Flo, who will invariably stop by when passing through. And earlier this year, the shop laid claim to being the first in East Africa to celebrate Record Store Day, bringing the city’s record buying community to the market to celebrate the opening of Stall 570’s new extension.

    Business is booming and, needless to say, Jimmy’s is a must-visit.

  • Record Store Day at Jimmy’s, the vinyl man of Kenyatta Market

    By | April 26, 2017

    We return to Stall 570 for East Africa’s first ever Record Store Day celebration.

    Last Saturday dozens of people made their way through the tight alleyways of Kenyatta Market, past the hair salons and through the nyama choma (roast meat) smoke to stall 570, where James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami set up shop in 1989. Young, old, Kenyan and expat alike filled the tight space by the stall, cradling cold beers as they browsed the hundreds of records on offer.

    “This is the first time that Record Store Day is celebrated in East Africa” says Jimmy, who first heard about it through his son. Both he and Jimmy’s daughter helped organize the party and were with their father on the day. The party also served as the official opening of the new section of the shop, just a few doors down from the original stall, which will cater to Jimmy’s growing clientele. “Thing are changing so fast, so many people are getting into vinyl. There is no comparison to a few years ago” says Jimmy.

    Just a few weeks ago the dark room was packed with broken machinery and bits of scrap metal. But by Saturday the butchers equipment and broken fridges had been removed, and the walls had been covered with wood paneling and hung with vinyl art and an eclectic mix of record sleeves. Throughout the day various DJs took to the turntables, spinning anything from old-school hip-hop to northern soul and 70s Kenyan funk, as people spilled out onto the alleyway and feasted on roast goat, chicken and ugali.

    “The turnout was truly overwhelming” said Samuel Ombasa, aka DJ Samthadigga, one of the organizers of Crate Society, a monthly gathering of music and vinyl lovers.

    Despite the store’s growing popularity, Jimmy’s place remains the perfect example of what Record Store Day started out to celebrate: independent record stores, and the community they foster.

    Scroll down for Paul Munene’s photo essay of the day below:

    Jimmy welcomes friends to the party

    Jimmy has a large collection of ’60s and ’70s East African music for sale

    Roast meat, cold beer and good music make this alleyway in Kenyatta market probably one of the best places in the world

    The butchery opposite stall 570 has been here as long as the record shop

    Long time Nairobi resident and vinyl collector David Sanders checks out the records on offer

    Party attendees Tom and Jeremy

    The party was held in the newly opened store, a few doors down from the original stall 570

    Hundreds of records were on sale for Record Store Day

    Samuel Ombasa, aka Samthadigga, took to the decks to spin some hip-hop

    Alicia Kiarie, Jimmy’s niece, was in charge of the record sales for the day

    The guys from Santuri Safari sent Jimmy a copy of Auntie Flo’s The Soniferous Garden, which was recorded in Santuri’s studio in Kampala, Uganda (Pictured: Lionel Diarra)

    Jimmy holds up the latest addition to his collection

    Beer, records and good people made for a perfect day

    The party went through the afternoon and into the evening

    Lionel Diarra, who DJs at monthly event Crate Society, digs for gold

    Lionel Diarra

    Hundreds of Kenyan and Congolese 7″ records were for sale

    The party spilled onto the alleyway

    Jimmy poses with Kenyan music promoter and writer Buddha Blaze

    Vinyl art by Richie Njogu

    Jimmy unveiled the new section of the shop last Saturday, 30 years after opening his first stall in Kenyatta Market

    “I never imagined anything even close to this. I’m flying” – James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami on the success of East Africa’s first Record Store Day celebration

  • The vinyl man of Kenyatta market

    By | November 9, 2016

    Meet James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami, who’s been selling records at Stall 570 in Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market since 1989.

    Words: Megan Iacobini de Fazio / Photos: Rachel Clara Reed

    There is a hive of activity in the narrow, meandering alleyways of Kenyatta Market. Women sit on plastic chairs, feet immersed in a basin of soapy warm water in preparation of their pedicures, two ladies at their head, frantically pinning and twisting fake plastic hair into neat braids. In the small, cluttered stalls, there are men bent over sewing machines, making dresses out of the colourful kitenge, whilst vendors walk by selling boiled eggs, Maasai jewellery and pale yellow corn.
    Tucked away in the meat corner of the market is stall 570, where James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami has been selling music since 1989. Raising from an old record player, the sounds of rhumba and lingala waft through the air and mingle with the smoky aromas of roast meat. An autographed poster of Lionel Ritchie and Mariah Carey’s sultry expression stare out from one of the walls, invisible due to the posters and LP sleeves – anything from the Clockwork Orange soundtrack to Tabu Ley’s Afro-Cuban classics and Motown Disco – plastered over them.

    Right here, between the stalls selling beef and goat meat, is one of a handful of places in Nairobi trading in vinyl records. Although the city was once the musical hub of East Africa, with scores independent record labels and multinational record companies establishing their regional headquarters here and a pressing plant which was in operation until the early 1990s, vintage records are hard to come by. In downtown Nairobi, off a noisy street by the bus station, is Melodica Music Stores, one of the few places other than Jimmy’s place that sells records. Established in 1971, Melodica recorded and produced hundreds of East African records, many of which can still be found, piled high and unplayed, in the shop’s storage room. But while Melodica is a treasure trove for original, untouched African singles, Stall 570 is the only place in the city which has a large collection of used LPs and singles for sale.

    Divided between two adjacent stalls, the shop is crammed with records, tapes, old record players, a few vintage film cameras and even some old shellac discs. Jimmy, a friendly man in his sixties who is never seen without his flatcap, can usually be found unpacking boxes of newly discovered vinyl treasure troves or digging out records for his customers.

    “My family was not a musical family. The first time I saw a radio – not a record or cassette player, just a simple radio – was in high school. There wasn’t a record player in our home until 1979” says Jimmy.

    In the 1980s he was making a living trading in clothing in Meru, a town at the green and fertile foothills of Mt Kenya, when an itch for something more exciting and a broken record player gifted to him by his brother kickstarted his new business venture. “As soon as I fixed the machine I drove to Nairobi and spent all my savings on records. That was 1986”.

    “The music scene used to be quite vibrant, I was always invited to DJ at disco nights at the local clubs and especially at the army barracks. I used to spin mostly African stuff – local records in Kikuyu and Kamba language and few in Zairua, the music of current day Democratic Republic of Congo,” says Jimmy.

    But the erratic DJ lifestyle started taking its toll – “I loved life in the fast lane, with all the partying and the ladies,” he says as a poorly suppressed smile creeps up his face – and Jimmy moved with his family to Nairobi in search of something more stable. Thus, in 1989, the now legendary Kenyatta Market stall started selling music, crammed between butcheries selling beef, goat and chicken meat. Little has changed since then: the shop has expanded to incorporate the stall next door, the variety of genres has grown and the customer base widened, but the charm of the place has remained intact.

    “The location is pretty cool, I’m glad he chose to stay at the very local ambiance of Kenyatta Market” says Thomas Gesthuzien, a collector who has spent many blissful hours digging in the store.

    The shop has survived the decline of vinyl, the popularity of tapes, the birth of CDs and the threat of piracy by adapting to the changing trends. In its early years it sold mainly tapes, which Jimmy would source from all over East Africa: “I used to drive all the way to Dar es Salaam, then take a boat to Zanzibar and buy tapes there. That’s where people were supplying the best stuff, especially jazz, which in Nairobi was either unavailable or very expensive.” But while records were not selling at all, something told Jimmy to buy vinyl whenever he came across it, and he soon accumulated a large collection of foreign and African records. He could go for six months without selling one, but Jimmy could just not stop collecting them.

    “I began noticing a difference about 10 or 12 years ago, people were coming into the shop and paying more attention to the few records I had here. I started bringing more in and slowly but surely they started selling.” Now, the shop sells almost exclusively vinyl, mostly old Western music, with a large collection of East African 7″s and some 12”s. One side is where the albums are kept, while the other houses a large collection of singles. Tucked away on the bottom shelves in one of the corners are the Kenyan ones, divided into the various local languages: Swahili, Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, and Luhya. Next to them is an equally large selection of Lingala – the language of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    “He’s the only one catering for a growing Nairobi crowd – especially born Kenyans, not just expats – of vinyl lovers, and he does so with true passion for the music,” says Thomas, who came across a mention of Jimmy’s place online five years ago. Thomas – aka Gioumanne/J4/Jumanne – is a DJ and collector who does research and licensing for reissue labels Strut, Soundway, Afro7 and Rush Hour. He’s been running African Hip Hop – a website whose goal is to ‘unify everybody who’s inspired by hip hop and by the cultures of Africa and of African origins’ – since 1997 and has recently been working on the Kenya Special Second compilation by Soundway records.

    “I found one of the first records for the compilation at Jimmy’s. It’ an afro rock single by a band called Awengele, and when I put it on the turntable, he jokingly said: ‘If I’d have known about this, I would have kept it myself’ and proceeded to sell it to me at a very favourable price,” Thomas tells me.

    Jimmy says that while most foreigners come digging for African stuff, Kenyans have an eclectic taste, with local and international music being equally sought after.
    “At home we listen to everything from African to international rock, blues, soul, pop, instrumental, classical and reggae,” says Angela, one of Jimmy’s regular customers. “I grew up around music and the old Philips record player has always been at the centre of our family gatherings.” Until she heard about Jimmy’s place, Angela would buy records online, “but”, she says, “the real joy of going to the Kenyatta market stall is spending hours digging around and looking for that one treasure.”

    Local interest in East African music is definitely on the up, as demonstrated by the popularity of initiatives such as Santuri Safari – Santuri meaning ‘vinyl’ in Swahili – a loose network of DJs, producers, musicians and cultural activists who aim to ‘bridge the gap between traditional artists, instruments, rhythms and cultures and the cutting edge of the global underground music scene’. Esa Wiliams – the UK based South African DJ whose name can be found on the acclaimed Highlife World Series– is part of the Santuri network and visited the stall in 2015 with Santuri co-founder and British DJ David Tinning. “I was more interested in the story behind Jimmy, the records he’s been collecting and also how he initially ended up in a meat market,” says Esa. “We spoke for a couple of hours on the history of the shop, his regular customers and the collection, and after that I had time to dig and get a few from his collection – Letta Mbulu, Tabu Ley Rochereau.”

    David Tinning, a veritable vinyl aficionado with a passion that encompasses anything from Jamaican dub to afro funk, disco and techno, came across some ’80s boogie and disco records to add to his collection. “Lots of them had names of their previous owners – often bands or DJs that were active in Nairobi in the ’80s or ’90s – which I find fascinating.” Kenyan Santuri co-founder Gregg Tendwa has come across a few Benga tunes for his archives, a useful find as he also the mind behind Bengatronics – a sound which blends ‘cutting edge electronics, irresistible Benga rhythms and sweet-as-sugarcane guitar riffs’.

    Thomas agrees that young Nairobians are listening to East African music with renewed interest: “when I showed up at a monthly event called We Love Vinyl playing 100% local music – often sourced from Jimmy – people looked at me weirdly, but ultimately they loved it and the mere availability of these classics and forgotten recordings have helped turn young people onto their musical heritage.”

    But as the popularity of African music increase among both Kenyans and foreigners, acquiring stock is becoming increasingly difficult for Jimmy. “Sadly, as you can see, this is the only African 12” we have,” he says, pointing at a shelf and a small pile of boxes. “There is no more production around here and they are becoming harder and harder to get.” Sometimes people bring in their LPs and ask Jimmy to digitize them; “but other times”, he says “I am forced to act like a predator”.

    He has a network of point men in different regions of Kenya, and some in Kampala, Uganda, who inform him when they come across people with a large stock. “If they do not want to dispose of them, I give their families my number, and I wait.” On one of my visits to the stall, Jimmy has just received a large hoard of LPs, mostly African and in great condition. “These were just given to me by the son of a lady who passed away two weeks ago. He is not interested in keeping them, so I’ll give him some money and the music on digital format in exchange.”

    Despite the challenges in sourcing good quality vinyl, Jimmy is positive that the future of stall 570 is bright.

    Esa too agrees that the little stall in the meat market is made of hardier stuff than most record shops: “places like Jimmy’s will always be around as trends come and go; they may not be as popular as the records stores in the West but they keep the vinyl spirit alive.”

    For Jimmy, the store is about identity and roots as much as it is about music. He believes that it would be a great loss for future generations to forget their musical history, and is always keen to pass on his knowledge to younger customers. From time to time he welcomes school parties and teaches them about East Africa’s musical traditions.

    “A new breed of talent is emerging in these communities”, says Esa, “and it’s important to have a place like Jimmy’s as a reference to access all the different styles of music that were released across different regions in Africa.”

    Having been the only one in charge of the stall since it started, Jimmy’s only worry is who will take it on. He already works seven days a week, and seldom takes a break, afraid of missing out on the opportunity to help someone find their new favourite record. “The challenge is to find someone who wants to do this out of passion, not for money” says Jimmy; “for me, this has been a labour of love. I’ve put my children through school and university thanks to my record shop, but no one is ever going to get rich with it”. Thankfully, Jimmy’s nephew Patrick shares his uncles’ interest, and, in Jimmy’s’ words, is being ‘groomed’ to take on the shop. “I do have plans to expand” says Patrick, “but I would never move it. This place has roots. Stall 570 is where this place was born, and where it will always be”.

  • Soundway Records preps second Kenya Special compilation of obscure East African recordings

    By | July 18, 2016

    An in-depth survey of East Africa’s cultural heritage.

    Released in 2013, Soundway’s first Kenya Special compilation was for many a first introduction to the sound of Kenya in the 1970s and ’80s. Spread across triple vinyl, the LP shed light on what was a flourishing scene that combined traditional luo benga and swahili afrobeat with a more modern disco and funk groove.

    Three years later and Soundway will return to the streets of Nairobi and Mombassa for a second compilation of rare East African recordings, again from the same fruitful period. The focus is on songs that bend the rules, breaking away from existing genre constraints or drawing on music from abroad. You can hear compilation track ‘I Can Feel It’ by The Lulus Band below:

    The label says that, despite growing interested in music of Kenya’s past, finding these tracks and securing their rights was a big challenge. Much of the output was only ever released on 7″ vinyl, in tiny runs, and only a handful of private collectors in Kenya and abroad were able to share catalogue information. The compilers went to great lengths to secure every detail, as seen in the extensive liner notes, photos and artwork from each 45.

    Kenya Special 2 drops on 7 October, pre-order here.

    Read next: The 7 best Kenyan 7″s

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