Even though many of us like to imagine that we own something of great value, when you put “monetary” in the value, it becomes a fickle proposition. Supply and demand maintain the market’s erratic bottom line. A Beatles or Rolling Stones record of a certain age, in reasonable condition, regardless of availability, is most likely to accrue a profit. But many a neglectful record collector, thinking their banged-up, hand labeled, collection of rock and roll platters are an enticing goldmine, has been greeted by a disappointed “worthless”.

Enjoyment, or how one enjoys something, or lives with something, provides the opposing definition of value. A specific individual assigns meaning, a personal history, to the object, the traces of which are broken once the thing changes hands. This is idiosyncratic value; a specific record’s defects or hand-written scrawls provide the kind of imaginative conjecture that trumps the crude dollar. If this lineage can be well established, then something has been added — “knowledge” or the transmutation of energy emanating from those who handled the object or where the object was found.

These are the stories told here, material culture lending the object the status of character, the object being an accoutrement of personality, something that implies the presence of an owner. Objects might find a new use, a purpose directly imbedded in the product, but the amateur archeologist, random speculator or artist, provides another kind of voice (an insight) for the dumb object. The object’s value is not precise but inspired.

This is the case with a 45rpm single that I found in the Lunar New Year street markets in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. It was a vinyl recording pressed and released in Nairobi, Kenya (circa 1970 something) sitting sleeveless in a heap of disparate items. If I picked up a locally produced (in Hong Kong) 45rpm, prices would skyrocket, but no one was looking for something other than the local stamp or “made in USA”.

Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year holiday stretches over a week. It used to be that most businesses closed for the duration. That changed over the years in tandem with the increasing speed of the economy. Some smaller businesses still remain shuttered, but for whatever reason the street markets of Sham Shui Po expand rather than shrink during the holiday. Everyone and anyone pulls every big and little, unwanted, unneeded, useful or useless thing from their flat, plops it down wherever space is available and tries to make a buck.

This is where I found Mikah Njiru and Mugo on the CMS label out of Nairobi. It wasn’t a bright, shiny object; it had been lying around somewhere (in Hong Kong) for a while, well-used or neglected. It could just as easily have ended up in a landfill. More than likely (since we have to guess) it was originally owned by an African. Sham Shui Po, along with being a low rent area convenient for the itinerate traveler (if we assume that is who the original owner was), is home to many African clothing markets and wholesalers. More than likely (since we have to guess) a tenant moved on, forcibly or by intention, and left behind some possessions. Mikah Njiru and Mugo on the CMS label out of Nairobi is not a record easily found in Hong Kong. It had probably been carried across continents as a personal talisman, an aural connection to the homeland.

If so desired, we can make up another story.

Nevertheless, the record is now mine. I can tell you where I found it and the conditions under which it was sold. That much has been established. It certainly holds a significant position within my collection, but its monetary value is debatable. Otherwise, we turn to the label (for written information) and we play the record (its fundamental, still viable, purpose).

The CMS label is the brand of the Capital Music Store in Nairobi. Regional music stores of a certain era, which sold records, record players and/or musical equipment, were well placed to recognize a local market for local product. The owner might already be a practiced electrician, someone who can set up a recording studio. The scant information I gathered online establishes that the store was owned and operated by a southeast Asia male (Indian or Pakistani?), a known equation in similar scenarios, the non-native entrepreneur who gets or keeps the ball rolling.

The two songs (“Coka Kwanyu” b/w “Ndiri Ungi Nyenda”) are simple vocal duets, male and female voices accompanied by guitar, what can easily be classified as “folk”. The pertinent information on the label indicates the language as Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya. The plaintive and folky qualities of the vocals, though (on my part) untranslatable, feel like proverbs, tribal sayings and expressions incorporated into a modern idiom. More than likely, you will never hear the song, and by necessity, will have to rely on my description. I have found something that has evaded the internet’s scouring tendencies.

My eyes scan the landscape for the familiar sight of the flat, round, black disc. I have come across records on the curb (ready for municipal collection), inserted into the crannies of second-hand shops, in the piles of flea markets. How do we distinguish between excavating trash and digging through the chaotic arrangements of the re-sale market? The miner’s talent is knowing where to look, in sensing where the desired object may turn up. And like the miner, we are prey to stories of the fantastic claim, the time-consuming struggle that leads to fortune.

In another country, in another flea market, I come across another “folk” recording. Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, a 78 rpm tucked in a box in the outdoor Marolles flea market in Brussels, Belgium. There is hardly any reason, at this location, to go through the boxes of scratched-up all-too-available water-sodden discs that have already been given the twice over by used record store buyers and neophyte collectors. The 78 rpms are themselves bereft, unplayable, sleeveless stacks of classical and opera, supposedly a marker of sophistication but now akin to the overabundant and unwanted pop hits of yesteryear.

“La Vie en Rose” is a pop hit of yesteryear, a massive crossover, a song that has managed to attain the status of “classic” if not the nebulous “classical”. It lands in its own category within French music, “Chanson”, defined as “lyric-driven”, surely a marker of the wordy “folk” where the listener and performer are drawn into the narrative as well as its conveyance. To my American eyes the record, in its original format, is a gem, but was assigned the perfunctory price of one Euro by a half-hearted seller sitting on a stool next to his wares.

It’s likely that “La Vie en Rose” (in the year my 78 rpm was released) was played on a gramophone somewhere in Kenya. In Kenneth Rexroth’s long poem about his hikes and bicycle trips across Europe (“The Dragon and the Unicorn” composed between 1944 and 1950) “La Vie en Rose” repetitiously emerges from open windows and café radios, a modern counterpoint to the poem’s medieval cathedral bells. Where Mikah Njiru and Mugo lands on that spectrum, on the scales of commonality or what is common, is another matter altogether. I am the one who has put, or has played the two records side by side; that fantastic juxtaposition coinciding with where and how both records were recovered.

They both ended up in the heap, one due to ubiquity, the other through rarified circumstances. They are both, regardless of the fleeting personal value I assign them, assigned to the overwhelming category of “things”, the pile that all of us juggle trying to decide where they land once we move, when we die (when we move on). We can try to save them, but then the next cycle unwinds and someone else comes across our ancestor’s possessions at the flea market or safely orphaned in an institutional archive. Otherwise, they disappear, and seeing how they (at one time) affected the living, being swallowed by the cosmos is not the most dejected of fates.

Now read: “Bosco and his Doghouse” only available on 78rpm

Musical music, historical and cultural connections

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