By James Rogoi
Images by Joseph Chege
Any knife wielding, nyama choma vendor or grease palmed braid expert will give you the short directions to Jimmy’s. As you enter Kenyatta Market, James G. Rugami’s stall blends in with the smoky aromas of roasted goat and beef in the small alleyways of the thronging market. He however is not one of the meat sellers. He deals strictly in the business of selling pleasure – musical pleasure. A duo of stalls filled to the brim with vinyl records is the man’s pride and joy.
The customary Jaramogi hat always adorns his graying head. On this day, dark jeans and a green long sleeved shirt top up his trendy ensemble. A welcoming smile greets any and everyone who pays him a visit as he sits on a long stool behind the counter where he’s always to be found.
Jimmy has been situated at his current Kenyatta Market stalls since 1991 but has been in the market since ’89. He’s always been into music. The Ndakaini native’s foray into music is a long story. He started out selling cassette tapes and vinyl records in the early 80s in Meru town before moving to Nanyuki, where he DJ’ed at a military barracks. According to him, a jockey’s life is always on the first lane, “with the best ladies and the best wine” there for the spin master’s taking. This fast life didn’t appeal to the family man and he soon relocated his brood to his home town of Ndakaini before making his move to the big city – Nairobi.
Jimmy speaks of his love for vinyl with a passion. He blows off the dust from Manu Dibango’s “O Boso” and as the record spins and the needle touches the 12” record’s surface, he calls for attention. As the crisp sound of one of the best blowers alive fills the room, he reminisces on the good old days when making music was a labour of love. “Many people were involved in making a record,” he says. “The joy of something that has involved so many people is tremendous. Many people got to make a living from the art.” Jimmy reckons that the MP3 is the worst thing ever in terms of production. He plays something else from his computer and listens with disdain. “Listen to that and then compare it to what you just heard,” referring to the ensemble he had played a few minutes before. “Now they produce from their bedrooms, eating burgers and in two, three hours, someone is a star!”
Aside from selling 7” and 12” vinyl records, Jimmy restores broken record players. The only other artefacts in his shop are Work in Progress record players which go for as high as a cool Ksh 150,000 – you can’t argue with quality.
His record collection is sourced from far and wide. On this day, Jimmy displays a shipment of almost 200 records he has received from the lake town of Bondo. He’d already made the payments but sadly, the records are all in no condition to be sold or even played. He will give them away to the myriad of school parties that visit his shop as souvenirs. He gets school children coming to his establishment on trips and it’s always special for him to impart his vast knowledge on this disappearing mode of playing music. “My real satisfaction comes from young people asking, ‘what is this, what does that do?’” He hosts a few of these parties every school term.
The Bondo experience makes Jimmy apprehensive about shipping records in. He likes to travel and judge the conditions for himself. He tells a particularly memorable story about a trip he made to Windhoek, Namibia on a friend’s tip to buy over 2000 records he had gotten wind were in mint condition. Upon arrival and negotiation with the seller, a Land Rover stopped outside and out stepped a group of mean looking men who had different ideas and told Jimmy in no uncertain terms that there was no way he was taking all that history with him. He would leave with 100 of them or with nothing at all. Long and short of the story is that Jimmy felt uncomfortable and came back home empty handed. Other trips have however been more successful. His round trip to the hotbed of Rhumba, the Democratic Republic of Congo and through Tanzania among other cities have yielded him a proud collection. His sales similarly also go far and wide. Just the preceding Saturday, 13 records were on their way to Northern Australia via Western Union. He also has his tentacles in territories as far out as Canada.
Jimmy also has a loyal group of followers in Kenya. They’ll pop in every so often to see what the newest find is. A small band of purists will always stop by. DJs like Greg Tendwa are happy to have him as their dealer and drummer Carrey Francis Ronjey has Jimmy’s as his port of call.
“Jimmie is a walking library,” said Gregg Tendwa, one of Nairobi’s premier DJs and music producers. “He digs out all those old records and creates awareness that there’s all this great music we should have heard. For any DJ who wants to dig around for stuff, Jimmy’s is the first stop.”
Locally, he gets people bringing him records, mostly from word of mouth. He gets especially excited when his suppliers have no idea of the value of what is in their possession. He doesn’t have to haggle as hard. Other times, he’ll pay as steep a price as Ksh 10,000 for a single record depending on its Picasso – esque value.
Asked if he gets attached to any of his finds, Jimmy answers in the negative. He says, “If I find something my clients like, that’s my joy.” However, his collection is mostly Western and when he finds any original African music, it’s always a special moment. His collection includes famous speeches which are hot cakes and leave as soon as they land. Ironically though, he has had a recording of Sir Winston Churchill for a while now and is waiting for that to fly off his shelves any time.
Loyalty means a lot to Jimmy. For that reason, he won’t move out of Kenyatta Market and to the centre of town where, as it’s put to him, there’s more business. His simple answer, “So what happens when a person who was here four years ago comes looking for me?” In this day of Social Media, Jimmy likes somewhere where his clients know and expect to find him. In jest he adds that anyone who wants to buy him a quarter nyama choma will always know where to deliver it.
Bowing to the wave of Social Media, Jimmy has allowed his wares to be posted online. He however has brought in someone else to handle this arduous task for him. His nephew Patrick Kimani has taken up this task and runs Jimmy’s Facebook and Twitter pages, @RealVinylGuru.
For someone whose life is music, Jimmie says you’re unlikely to ever find him out at Samba or Choices listening to a live act. “I’m not a social guy. I come in from 7:00am and leave at 6:00pm and by then I’m pretty beat.” According to him, good bands are hard to find anyway. They don’t stay at the same place for long due to the small problems of meagre or non-existent pay from club owners. “Resident bands don’t stay in the same place for long and I’d hate to get taken in and not find them in the same place a month later.”
His family is not as musically inclined, though he says his seventeen year old daughter visits the shop now and then and seems to be developing an interested in her father’s trade. Recently Jimmy was surprised when he came home to find his son entertaining his guests at their home in Ndakaini – maybe the apple doesn’t fall that far.
“Kenya has fared badly. There are no radio stations playing purely Kenyan music. If they do, it’s the new fad kind of music. Very talented musicians don’t get airplay.” These are Jimmy’s sentiments on the state of the music industry in the country. “No royalties are paid either.” His biggest pain however is one of Kenya’s biggest crooners, Joseph Kamaru. Jimmy is a personal friend of the maestro who sang freedom songs and has entertained Kenya and the region with his deep lyrics and distinct voice for many decades now. Jimmy refers to Kamaru as “beyond a national asset.” “He shouldn’t be struggling to make ends meet for a musician of his stature. Sadly we’ll appreciate him when he’s gone.” Jimmy gets emotional when he talks about Kamaru. “I get pained when I visit him at his small shop in River Road. He should be getting big stipends from his huge body of work.”
In the meantime, Jimmy will be found at his stall, sitting atop his stool, his customary Jaramogi hat on his head, talking to a client, looking through his massive collection, or taking photos with satisfied clients. He is Nairobi’s vinyl guru.
James Rogoi is a freelance writer, interested in the urban metropolis that is Nairobi and whatever goes on beneath the surface. He is also behind anything that you will see in print on any matter relating to the sport of tennis.
Joseph Chege is a photographer. @thanabster on Instagram