Mark O’Shaughnessy remembers a haul of more than 2,000 records from a 10-day trip that set his pulse racing.
There aren’t many places I’ve visited on my vinyl digs that I wouldn’t go back to, but Johannesburg in South Africa was one of them. A good friend of mine was working there for Channel 4 on a shoot about the political fallout following the first (truly) democratic elections in South Africa since before Apartheid. The city was in chaos. Martial Law was imminent, anarchy reigned… the ANC had lost control of the streets. The year was 1999.
Knowing me well, my friend called me about these record stores he’d been to in downtown Jo’burg, called Kohinoor. He listed a few items he’d found there and my heart (literally) skipped a beat. Sealed Roy Ayers LPs on Uno Melodic, Leroy Hutson on Curtom in multiple, Doug Carn on Black Jazz, Rotary Connection on Cadet… all sealed, all eight-to-10 rand each (the exchange rate was eight rand to a pound at that time).
I quickly contacted Mick The Hood, who you should all remember from previous articles as my often-time sidekick on such excursions. He instantly agreed to come with me – the plan was coming together…
Plane tickets were booked next day, accommodation sorted and off we went. One minute in the planning, three days in the execution.
Boom!! We were met off the plane by our guide, Sonny, a beautiful young African man who was going to take us around the city during our month there. He was paying himself through college and our fees were going a long way towards that. We had a driver, Andrew – also full of fun. So, we all crammed into Andrew’s tiny two-door cab. It was well over 100 degrees each and every day, oh boy…
We set off straight for downtown Jo’burg – what a place, absolutely teeming with life. Sonny said that guns were openly available for 40 rand and a clip of ammo cost just 20 rand more. Life expectancy among young black males was low. Driving straight through every red light we came to, we stopped for nothing or nobody, with robberies at traffic junctions rife. “We never stop for lights, my friend,” Andrew said – and we weren’t arguing.
I can honestly say that even in the peak digging cities in the USA (New York, Philly and Chicago), never have I seen so many sealed soul, funk and jazz LPs in one place – they were literally wall to wall. You name a major black label or artist and they were represented. My problem was not about what to buy, more what to leave behind. My gast was truly flabbered.
We spent well over 10 man-days in the Kohinoor stores and pulled out more than 2,200 LPs, an amazing haul of black music, imported into South Africa in the 1960s and 70s in an attempt to counter the political system and encourage black culture, and left more or less untouched since then. The owner would not even let us into his storage basement – this was just the stuff in the racks, kids. He’d been amassing records down there since the stores opened their doors in 1950. Incredible. I still have sleepless nights over what we didn’t even get to.
The next phase after the city-stores haul was to get into some local African vinyl, and we were not disappointed. Sonny had been working on our behalf before we arrived and had set up several meets with local collectors and dealers. Off we went again in Andrew’s cramped cab…
Driving around, it was clear that the whole city was completely divided by race – huge, gated houses with long driveways juxtaposed with people living on the roadside in cardboard shacks, the fallout from years of Apartheid right there: horrendous inequality.
We found some of our best African stuff in such places, and people who know their African wax will approve when I say that we found four copies of Dollar Brand’s Underground In Africa LP in one spot – it was a £200 boner back then, God only knows what it is worth now… but the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth – electrified fences, huge guard dogs, barbed wire…
We also had a gun pulled on us one night. Eating peri-peri chicken and fries at a roadside spot with our hosts, a man came up and flashed the butt of his handgun, which was wedged into his belt top under his vest. He didn’t want to kill us, he just wanted money. So Andrew negotiated and 25 rand was handed over – two-and-a-half quid. As I said, life was cheap there.
All in all, we amassed nearly 3,500 records, all shipped to the UK at enormous cost, but boy, there was some gold in those boxes. We said goodbye to our wonderful hosts and got horrendously drunk in the airport. It was impossible to spend money there, the rand was on its knees. We had loads more scrapes in Jo’burg, even a crocodile encounter. It really was a white-knuckle ride.
Mark O’Shaughnessy is the owner of Bath record shop Resolution Records and has been a professional record dealer since 1993.