Five years since I was last in Nairobi. Woke on a couch and watched the sun come up on a giant tree in the yard. Marveled at the color and texture of the light. Wondered how I could stay away so long. A few hours later I realized it’s just a colored spotlight.
The last time I was here my friend looked out the window at the long lines of people shuffling to work along the dirt path from the slums of Kibera. “This is a walking city,” he said.
This time the city feels faster, more crowded, richer, meaner, dirtier. There’s a little more order but a lot more people. In the end it’s a wash. The new “traffic cameras” are just flashing lights. The motorcycle guys wear helmets but haven't dropped the death wish. Expensive lowered coups crash through the potholes. The daily Biblical rainstorms mash it all together.
In Kenyatta market, a record stall jammed between butcher shops. Thousands of albums – funk soul rock and precious few Kenyan sounds. James asks for my list of artists and labels, and he asks Juliette, his assistant, to begin her search. “We’ll call you tomorrow.” He gives me some phone numbers and sends me on my way.
At a reincarnation of the famous Assanand’s record store, three shops spread up and down Moi Avenue, Robert flips through the collection of CDs from the olden days. I’m looking for stuff from the 60s and 70s, guitar music before the Benga bands took over. A label called Tamasha has reissued some of them.
At the Tamasha office, I catch a glimpse of the operation. 15 CD burners churn out reissues of the classics. An old Epson printer squeaks out CD covers. A paper catalog of releases lists terse facts about some of the greats -- among them George Mukabi, John Ondolo, and Isaiah Mwinamo, who "is retired from music, got saved, and is resting at home. You will like his guitar and good voice." I want to speak to the artists who are still with us, and meet the families and friends of those who have passed on. The goal is to add to the painfully short bios we have for most of them.
Downtown on River Road, an entire building is dedicated to bootlegging these semi-bootleg CDs. Offices within offices, closets that open onto more small businesses, hundreds of people running up and down the stairs, burning and printing and downloading, scheming, making it happen. Uptown Nairobi, above the matatu terminal, there are banks and nice hotels and fat guys in suits. Downtown the streets are dirt and real business gets done.
I meet a lot of people. Some of them are kind and some see dollar signs and some read me poetry. I eat meat and buy records and ride around getting phone numbers for very old men who once recorded gorgeous songs they rarely got paid for. Some of them are still alive. Tomorrow I leave for the countryside where I hope to meet them.
This last week has made me very grateful and very tired. I've had so much help from friends old and new. From Portland, incredible advice and inspiration from Gordon and the Mississippi crew. In Kenya from Kip and Joyce and John and Kasuku and Yasiin and Abdul Karim, Colin, Pete, Susan, and George. Online resources, some written years ago and thousands of miles away, have aided and abetted the search -- especially Excavated Shellac and KenTanza Vinyl with their deep and dedicated music nerdery. And of course these old Kenyan songs, a constant, haunting, soundtrack. I play them on my phone for people when I'm trying to explain what I'm doing. And they play in my head day and night, alongside, inexplicably but somehow appropriately, "Panda" by Desiigner.