What he did was go vinyl shopping. Paz hit the record shops of Manhattan and Brooklyn, slowly using up his savings while discovering just how dedicated some collectors can be. He quickly linked up with Gossner, who introduced him to store owners and crate diggers who might be open to his questions (and his camera). As those shoots accumulated, the Dust & Grooves website began to take shape, but Gossner himself kept cagey.
“Frank wouldn’t let me into his house. He was supportive, but cautious.” It took two more years for Paz to gain access to the African aficionado’s stockpile. “He had a release coming out and he said ‘Alright, this could be a good time to do a feature.’ That was the first time that I went to his place, and he had just gotten a big shipment from Ghana.”
Paz sat in the hotel courtyard as they day grew dingy with January heat. Mampong was beginning to feel like a bust, with no records to buy and nothing to photograph. Despite Gossner’s best efforts to put out the call for music, pinning up flyers and buying time on local radio stations, those with good vinyl were missing the memo. “He spent a lot of time and money just waiting for the records to arrive,” Paz remembered. “Because basically it’s like intelligence work. You go there and there are no record stores.”
Reconsider this image: two white New Yorkers buying vinyl from local Africans with plans to export it, play it at lucrative DJ sets and then literally mount it on the wall back home. If the scene makes you uneasy, you’re not alone. I pressed Paz about the precedent of Western “explorers” carting off African resources and he admits that, for some, Gossner’s work could seem malicious. “It really depends on your perspective.”
Paz turned the questions around and back at me. “What is the Ghanaian record scene? Is there a Ghanaian record scene?” There isn’t one, he stresses. The local vinyl of Ghana isn’t counted as precious or special–it’s just another thing. A good to be bartered, bought and sold. Africa’s visiting diggers are driven by pleasure and prestige, but their work is also a kind of rescue operation. Much of what gets found and taken also gets reissued, and Gossner strives just as hard to put new high-grade pressings and royalty money into the hands of the Africans whose songs he’s re-released abroad. The music that was warping under the sun and eroding upon the sand gets a new lease on life. “It’s beyond preservation,” Paz said. “It’s actually saving music.”
Still, there’s no debating where most of the money flows. “Frank’s honest about it,” Paz said of Gossner. “He wants to own this music, put it out there, and be able to make some money off it.” The record collecting world is full of these kinds of knotted-up transactions. It’s not a simple or easy thing to talk about. “It’s really up to your own eyes. Some new African music conservation groups have started to pop up, and I think we have Frank to thank for it.”
Paz is sure of where he stands, and his last point is indisputable. “The music needs to be heard. It should be brought to the masses.”
As the days passed a few people did bring in crates for the two to dig through, but nothing interested Gossner, who would listen on his portable turntable for only a few seconds before lifting the needle and turning them down. Paz remembers the anxiety of those empty hours. When vinyl hunting is your life, silence is a special kind of agony.
That was when Phillip appeared.
Phillip Osei Kojo, a 90 year-old Mampong local, had heard that Paz and Gossner were looking for records and invited them to bring their turntable to his house. Just a short trek from the hotel, the place was piled with messy stacks of funk, afrobeat, and highlife vinyl. Gossner’s eyes went wide and he set to work digging, sorting and listening–only to sigh and shake his head once more. Phillip’s home stash was impressive, but none of it would be going home with Gossner.
And yet, as the needle dropped on each dusty record, Paz kept snapping photos. From behind the lens, he had noticed a change in their host. “You couldn’t really understand Phillip’s emotion, his reaction, but he had this amazing look on his face.” Later they learned that it was a look of awe. Phillip’s home turntable had broken down decades ago; he hadn’t listened to his own music in over 30 years.