The archaeologist of African vinyl
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.
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.”
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.
“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.