Melodica: The shop ‘bringing back music’

Abdul Karim, the owner of Melodica music store. PHOTO | CORRESPONDENT

What you need to know:

  • Initially named Bonanza, the music store, which was founded by Karim’s father P. Daudia in 1962 operated on Luthuli Avenue, relocating to its current address in 1971.
  • In several ways, Melodica is a rallying point -- a thoughtful reminder of what once was. If history and fashion tell us anything at all, it is that nothing ever really goes away, it only reposes for a while in the cobwebby recesses of memory and time, only to ricochet into life. We seek for simpler, truer times.
  • The one item that seems doomed to never make a roaring return into the entertainment scene is the cassette tape player. The cassette, which pounced onto the arts as the vinyl record was bowing out in the early eighties, is to music what featherweight boxing is.

Here, look at this, you might find interesting stuff,” Abdul Karim is telling me, nodding towards two cartons in the corner. He hands me a plastic stool and walks back to the counter. The cartons are heavy, packed with jacketed LPs and as I pull out record after record, classics and almost all of them in factory quality shape. I conclude that I have shove led into a gold mine. The Beatles, The Eagles, Charley Pride, Lucky Dube, Stevie Wonder and a slew of other Motown acts.

This is my second visit to Melodica, a music store on Tom Mboya Street in downtown Nairobi City. Soft music wafts around the store, lazy and calming in the warmest of ways. And nostalgic. The décor is museum-worthy. Some of music’s roll of honour peer down from the walls: a poster of Jimmi Hendrix and his glorious Afro at the Fillmore concert, lost in the riffs of his electric guitar. Suzanna Owiyo in her tailored pensive pose. Tshala Muana. On the walls too are decades-old yellowed newspaper cutouts carrying breathless bites about the sighting of this and that musician, their exploits and gate pull; their performance dates.

The walls are also adorned with old vinyl records bearing names of singers long muted yet never more alive, residing alongside violins, guitars, flutes, the horn. Cassette tapes and LP jackets line several racks.

Unless you are determinedly looking for the shop, or you happen to pass by and the dispatches of Mbaraka Mwinshehe or Franco Luambo catch your ear and pull you up the steps, you’d not be held guilty of oversight if you kept walking. And it makes sense. Melodica, like many places that time seems to have overlooked is a relic hiding in plain sight, clinging stubbornly to a small piece of real estate, ensconced in a time capsule and waiting to be found.

I first happened upon the shop when I looked at the display window and a powder blue gramophone -- the type you would find in a ’30s motion picture -- caught my eye. Inside the shop, I was pleasantly surprised to find a variety of newer models.

FUTURE OF MUSIC

Karim, the shop owner took me aside. A patient man with salt-pepper hair and a salesman’s knack for finding out exactly what you must buy, painstakingly explained the glory of the record player, and its timely comeback.

“You know, your parents will appreciate this,” Karim said after I told him about the enduring pain of losing the family Sanyo model, bought in 1970 after a repair man skipped town with the heirloom. “They will say, ‘remember when…? ’. You will come and tell me if this isn’t so.” When I came in, I was one foot in but with Karim’s pitch, I was sold.

On a late afternoon, a middle-aged man stands at the counter talking with Karim. He has the bearing of a school headteacher and spots a thatch of graying hair parted on the side with the Mandela cut. He is here to buy music. His old record player, he says, hardly works anymore. Never knew there still existed a place stocking these glory items of his youth.

“Many,” the man says, smiling when asked to name his favourite musicians while in his youth “Davis, Skeeter Davis. A bit of Abba, Kabassele (Ochieng’) certainly.”

Initially named Bonanza, the music store, which was founded by Karim’s father P. Daudia in 1962 operated on Luthuli Avenue, relocating to its current address in 1971. A visionary man, Daudia saw the future of music -- a fallow land with its centre self-determination and patriotism as the country shed colonial shackles and strode into freedom and a new order. The timing could not have been better.

“We had a practice studio where musicians honed their craft, after which we would link them with Andrew Crawford studios for recording,” says Karim.

In several ways, Melodica is a rallying point -- a thoughtful reminder of what once was. If history and fashion tell us anything at all, it is that nothing ever really goes away, it only reposes for a while in the cobwebby recesses of memory and time, only to ricochet into life. We seek for simpler, truer times.

It’s the reason digital photography has Sepia in the colour settings, to distill memory to a binary status: black and white. It is also partly the reason the turntable is still a must item for any DJ worth a spin. Nostalgia, Karim tells me, is priceless, timeless. And it is the one major pull that brings purists through the door time and again: The crackling of the vinyl as it spins round contour and contour, the record rising up and down; the memory of long gone youth and vitality.

“There are kids who have never seen a record player,” Karim says, “and you see it in their faces when they come in. You lift the needle and place it back. Wonders.”

“Most people have records at home but do not own a player,” Karim goes on, saying that this has led to a surge in sales of the players since the shop began re-stocking them. The record players also come with USB ports for buyers who choose to record and store music in modern formats.

In the course of business, both as a music stockist and fan, Karim has met, and made friends with several of storied musicians over the years including Kelly Brown, Pepe Kalle and the late Daudi Kabaka, among others.

 I mention the albums in the cartons. “I have been collecting (albums) since many moons ago,” Karim says, looking over his glasses for poetry. “I buy the albums in pairs so that whatever I sell, I retain a copy for my library.”

The one item that seems doomed to never make a roaring return into the entertainment scene is the cassette tape player. The cassette, which pounced onto the arts as the vinyl record was bowing out in the early eighties, is to music what featherweight boxing is: lots of talent, excitement even, but you would rather switch channels to the heavyweight division instead.

THE CASSETTE PLAYER

Even here in the shop, hardly anyone pays the cassette rack any mind. Perhaps it was the timing -- the brief decade before the CD made its debut rushed by fast, and if one could avoid the hassle of untangling spools of tape stuck in the teeth of the drivers by simply buying a CD player, why not shunt the thing aside?

Looking out the shop window, past the gold-covered Hendrix poster, it is entirely possible to indulge a reverie, to time-travel. The people walking hurriedly in the streets slow down, clopping by in wooden-soled shoes. The streets are breezy, the traffic light. Occasionally a man walks down the street, a pipe hanging out the corner of the mouth. Towering Afros steeple the air. It could be 1977.

But it is 2017 and a spigot has emptied humanity into the streets. There is a woman sitting outside the shop, a blind alms-seeker. Every now and then her collection tin tinkles with the blessed sound of coins dropped in by considerate passersby.

At her side is an old raspy cassette-tape player spinning a once-famous Christian song, 'Kila mtu atauchukua mzigo'. The music is laboured-most likely the batteries running low, and nearly swallowed by the cacophony of car horns and the madding crowd. The sightless woman helps the music along, belting the lyrics word for word. This is her spot, this is her music.

Then it strikes you: the vinyl version of the song in the cassette is among the records hanging on the wall. And as the blind woman competes with the music, the thought appears unbidden: there is still room for the cassette player, too.

You just have to find it. Music, life, everything goes on. It goes and comes back.

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