5 days after my arrival in India, I just boarded the sleeper train which will take me to my second destination after Delhi: Varanasi. 12 hours journey ahead, a good occasion to start writing about those 5 days in Delhi mainly dedicated to digging for this black gold which has been ruling my life for many years. Even on “holidays”, instead of visiting temples, the urge to hang out in dusty basements and dirtying my fingers on shabby 40 year old record sleeves is overwhelming.
Like for every digger of the web 2.0 generation, the hunt obviousely started on Google. In the case of India, the results turned out rather poor. There is no record store listing as can be found for many major cities and countries worldwide. the only results that come up in Delhi are the city’s most famous record seller “Shah’s music”. In the same article -briefly mentioned- is the opposite shop, Nr.152. Both music dealers are situated in “Meena Bazaar” which is a partly covered market mostly selling mechanical parts and electronic accessories. Although it is situated right in between two main tourist sights (the huge Jama Masjid mosque and the famous Red Fort), not many tourists wander around this spot. As Mr. Shah confirms, only passionate music collectors who know what they are searching for find their way to him. Since Mr. Shah is busy with a customer, I first slip into the neighboring shop.
Records all around, squeezed into a 12 square area. There is barely enough space for the boss and me to stand in between heaps of records, shellacs and tapes. Most local customers don’t come here to buy records, but to listen to them while their favourite tracks are recorded on a take-away tape which will cost them a fixed amount of Rupies per recorded song. After I mention a few records of 70ties film music, the owner starts to climb the walls and sort out some for me. Disco and funky tunes is what I’m looking for, to use for djing besides of psychedelic rock and other rare records which don’t arise from the film industry. Indian outsider music is hard to find since there have been very few Indian singers and producers going off the common track back in the days. The first demand I’m adressing to the approximately 70 year old man is the soundtrack of Sultanaat, which is playing in the shop two minutes later on the portable LP2GO turntable I pulled out of my backpack.. For the first time since I arrived , the owner puts up a big smile and directly calls some of the neighboring merchants to come have a look at this weird machine with the white guy shaking his ass to Kalandji Anandji. All records cost 500 rupies. Since I consider it a fair price for what I found, I don’t bargain and about 3 hours and hundreds of his filmy disco tunes later I leave with 2 plastic bags full of records. Top finds: Babla’s Drum Dandia, 2 great instrumental Charanjit Singh albums and of course the amazing Sultanaat O.S.T. by Kalandji Anandji.
After that, I’m heading over to the shop no. 256. I’m invited to remove my shoes and to join the owner behind the counter. After listening to some tunes together, he directly knows what I’m looking for and digs out many records of my wantlist without me even showing it to him. It reminds me good old times when record dealers in my hometown used to do so. Every music shop employee should be able to directly recognize the taste of a customer and introduce him to new likeminded music. An art which has been lost in many shops. Akbar Shah grew up in the shop and recently took it over when his father passed away. The shop has been running for about 90 years and been attended by many Indian showbiz personalities and by Indian music experts from all over the world. (Finders Keepers, Sublime Frequencies, Bombay Connection and many more). I hang out with Mr. Shah and his 3 helpers for about 4 hours.
The young boy of the 3rd generations of handymen takes care of the tchai provision while the older man helps getting the records from the shelves. The young man in his 20ties does the runner who brings over requests from another warehouse when needed. We’re having a great time.
I end up spending all the money I have left knowing my salary arrives in two days and food in India costs as much as nothing. 7 inches cost more than 12 inches since they seem harder to find according to Mr. Shah. A few records are very expensive and since I can’t afford them, Mr. Shah kindly offers to record them on tape for me. Great! I ‘m taking home a few Ananda Shankar albums, the ultra rare LP of Indian Bob Dylan inspired songs by “Susmit Bose” and a 60ties beat album by “The Savages”, one of India’s first rock bands.
What a great day, no more need to go visit the other close by shop “The New Delhi Gramophone House”. This official institution is the only one in Delhi who also runs an online shop. Maybe next time!
In the following days, I’m continuously trying to ask the numerous tourist guides and rickshaw drivers for other spots where to find “gramophone music” and “filmy tunes”. Sometimes I typically end up in clothes shops where the employees don’t even know that vinyl has ever existed before they were born. A few of the searches turn out good, though ending up in music shops which have a small shelve somewhere backdoors hidden behind heaps of mp3 CD’s. In one of the shops, I stumble across the rare Malaysia press of RD Burman’s Deewaar featuring the mind-blowing song “I’m falling in love with a stranger” sung in English by “Ursula”. One instrument shop owner also tells me that he has a bunch of records in his warehouse, so we agree to meet the coming week when I’ll be back in Delhi.
When I arrived in the holy city of Varanasi, it seemed quite obvious to me that there were no recordshops. But still, where ever I come across a musicshop, I show them a 7inch and ask if they know someone who owns this. Most young people in India, especially the young ones, call a record a cassette. To my surprise the first sitar- and tablashop owner knows someone. 10 minutes later a smiling musician with a metalbox under his arm shows up. Unfortunately, many of his records are classical music or in very bad condition. Not so much of my interest. Anyways, it’s a pleasure for him to listen to the music again so we listen to all of them and I end up finding 2 nice Bollywood singles. The next morning when listening to the records in my hotel room, I suddenly hear some kids yelling “hello, hello”. 5 very young kids playing on a rooftop right next to my room’s window started dancing to the music and calling me for some chocolate. The eldest brother -who is taking care of the kids- asks me to show him my phone, as he thinks that’s where the music comes from. When I show him where it actually comes from, he obviously doesn’t know what it is. He must be about 20 years old. I ask him if he can take me to some music shops and he immediately agrees. We’re heading straight to some local markets and ask at every shop where elder people work. Indian people never say they don’t know, so everybody sends us to another shop next door or gives us a new address even if most of them are of no use. My young new friend turns out very helpful in translating and convincing the guys to think twice before refusing. During the next hours, we find ourselves running through the narrow and chaotic “galis” of Varanasi. Not the cowshit, nor the hordes of fanatic pilgrims can stop us. Some of the owners turn out helpful, call friends or family to come along with their old Bollywood records which have rested in their apartments for ages. Everybody wonders why I like old music and what I do with these “cassettes”. I gave my number to many people and the next day I still get calls from people I haven’t even met. I end up at their homes, in shops or at some restaurant to meet them and listen to the records. Many curious people come along to take part in our listening sessions while staring at me as if I came from another planet – which I in fact probably do.
Now I’m going off topic for a minute. Have a look at this amazing mechanical drum machine. I came across it in one of old Varanasi’s temples and thought it is worth to share with you. A good break from all this nerdy record talk.
My journey went on to Agra. After visiting the Taj Mahal and 2 other sights, I walked around the streets wondering how I should spend the rest of the afternoon since my train was booked for 18:00. Of course, Ganesha and/or Allah must have wanted it, I run across a tiny tape- and recordshop. Unfortunately, many of their records are in very bad condition. The heavy dust of the streets and some owners handling their collections very roughly makes it difficult to find quality records in India. In addition to that, the sleeves often show traces of moisture and mushrooms caused by the humid months of the monsoon every year. The shop opens onto a busy road which as usual attracts many curious people who come to have a look. Most old people still remember the 60ties and 70ties film hits while young people curiously open their ears to listen to the lyrics. I leave the friendly shop taking home some nice Hindi disco tunes and some Qawwali 7 inches. Qawwali is a form of devotional Sufi music which has its origins in the fusion of Persian and Indian traditions. It is the music and the songs of wandering minstrels since about 800 years. I also get my hands on the original 7inch with all-time classic Dum Maro Dum by RD Burman and Asha Bhosle.
At the end of the day, everybody happy, the family says a warm goodbye with big grateful smiley faces and I myself quickly get onto a Tuktuk to go catch my train to Jaipur – Rajasthan.
The next morning in Jaipur, I decide to start the search directly, so I will be able to schedule some meetings for the next day’s afternoon before I leave. After talking to a few people, a nice man with orange hair seems to know where to find what I’m looking for. He calls a few people and then offers me to join him to his home to pick up his motorbike. We have a quick tchai with his wife who is preparing sweets for the evening’s wedding and then hit the road to the Mughal area of Jaipur. On the way, we pick up a friend of his. We find ourselves 3 on the bike rushing through the busy bazars. At some point, they drop me and tell me to wait and have another tchai from the corner’s milky tea dealer. The guys disappear and while sipping on my cup, I notice a “DJ sound sistam” sign on the other side of the street. I take a picture of the weirdly spelled ad. 10 minutes later the guys show up again telling me to wait more. Soon the approximately 70 year old Dj comes out of the door under the sign. He says we can meet in the evening after 7pm so he will show me his records. I take his mobile number and we go on with “Mr. Orange’s” motorbike (Sorry Mr. Orange, I forgot your name.)
This time, they take me to a few tape recording shop owners. One of them has great Rajasthani folk tapes which he sells to me for 30rupies each. Equaling 36 eurocents, this is very cheap for an hour of great exclusive music. The tape seller knows the approximate address of a music shop that opens at 1Pm and apparently has some vinyl. I stay at the shop listening to tapes for another hour while the guys disappear doing their “things” again. When I ask about his job, Mr. Orange says he is a musician, although in the same phrase he says he is beginner in tabla, not unveiling to me what his real occupation is. He says he comes from a good family and does things here and there. He makes me feel comfortable by repeating that I’m his guest and that he doesn’t want any money for what he’s doing. Indeed, during this whole day he hasn’t tried to take me to any of his friend’s businesses, which is a rare experience in India. The only thing which seems very important to him is that I join him to a family marriage in the evening, which I’m definitely up for!
When the guys come to pick me up again, we have a short stop for praying and tchai at a temple and then go on to the music shop. The very friendly owner is called Deepak and besides of numerous tapes he has a big shelve full of records in surprisingly good condition! He doesn’t speak or understand English, but we understand each other very well musically. He’s a very warm person singing and dancing along with the records in a very funny way. Curiously, there is no turntable in Deepak’s music shop. He says that he hasn’t heard those records spinning in years. After I finished listening and deciding which ones I’ll carry on, he says to one of the English speakers around that he has many of my requests at home and will bring them to the shop the next day. Although my initially foreseen record budget has already doubled, I have to come back the next day since he says he will bring the instrumental version of “Soul Of Bobby”.
No way I’m letting this record here. Considering the successful picks of the day, I decide not to go to the Dj in the evening and keep his address for my next trip. Together with Mr. Orange we head to the Rajasthani wedding instead.
The next morning I start by visiting Jaipur’s fort and The Pink City. Then I quickly stop at Deepak’s again, who has brought another 20 records. I do a fast run through all of them and discover a bunch of 80ties albums I never heard about. The Indian Madonna covers album by Alisha Chinai is the hit!
Back to Delhi
Back in Delhi to catch my plane towards the south, I go pick up some records reserved at Mr. Shah’s. On the way, I hop into “The New Delhi Grammophone house” which is situated on the first floor of a shoe merchant close to Meeni Bazaar. They have a big stock of almost essentially Bollywood music. When I ask if I can listen to the records, the owner first refuses, saying it will take too much time. I wonder where the problem is since I’m the only customer and there are 4 employees in the room. After a while, I do a second try saying I need to check if the records skip : some of them are -as usual- in bad condition. This time it works, so I start listening to all the music I pick from the shelves. I buy a few soundtracks and get my hands on a few Pakistani 7inches. One of them is by Sohail Rana! It is in very bad condition, but the good thing is, the two exclusive tracks of the single play without skipping! Both other tracks which are destroyed by heavy scratches are on the beautiful “Khyber Mail” album which I already have. Great! Prices are not cheap, but very reasonable.
Especially very rare records will rarely go higher than 2000-4000 Rupies. The owner explains to me that he doesn’t like to sell overpriced as other sellers do sometimes. I’m very happy about that and once again I walk out with 2 bags full of wax. When arrived at Mr. Shah’s, he takes me to his main warehouse which has more than 30000 records. Nice one! He has prepared a selection of stuff he wants me to listen to. At the end of the day, I’m so excited, almost wishing I could be home to take a deep listen to all this music.
Instead I take a Rikshaw to my hotel to pick up the other records and take all of them, including tapes and CD’s to DHL. That night, I’m having a hard time to sleep since I’m seriously worried that the parcel might never reach home. I pray to Ganesha…
After a very rehabilitating 5 days “nature only” break in Hampi, I have 12 hours in Bangalore in between two night trains. Since shops open only around 10am, I first go to visit the botanical gardens and have a little more sleep on a park bench. I got a very good tip from Robert Millis of Sublime Frequencies who gave me the name of an antics shop owner in the Avenue Road. A few hours later, I find the shop and it takes me about 3 hours to check out all records on the shelves and preselect what I want to take along. No special finds, so I’m a bit disappointed telling myself this time it was not worth the while. When I go to the counter, the guy tells me there is more upstairs and takes me there. There is 3 times more than on the ground level. Although I’m really tired and kind of fed up of breaking my back on the low shelves, I just can’t leave without at least having a quick look. I don’t have my portable player anymore, as I traded it for a rare record with Mr. Shah. At least, it makes me win some time. I come across much better stuff here so I just keep on going for hours. My fingers and arms are blacker than ever . It’s the first time I see so many Tamil records and to my big surprise I even stumble across some afrobeat and some amazing belly dance disco from Lebanon which had been on my wishlist since years. So happy the long day turns out successful in the end! Time to go to the station for the next long journey south towards Kerala’s beautiful countryside. Probably no digging ahead for the next week.
One week later I arrive in Cochin, a major port city in the south of India. It has been an important spice trading hub for centuries and was colonized by the Portugese, the Dutch and the British. It also has a Jewish community which lives around the synagogue in jew-town. I got some hints that many antiquaries in this area of the city have some vinyl stocks. Indeed in the main street, about 7-8 of these shops sell records. In between all sizes of Ganesha sculptures and other miniatures, a few records are available. I spend one afternoon browsing these stores and scheduling some meetings for the next day. Top finds: 2 singles of the 1965 rock band “The Mustangs”. Amazing instrumental surf-rock from Madras (now Chennai).
From Cochin I fly to my last destination, Mumbai, formerly called Bombay. It is the capital of the famous Bollywood film-industry. From what many people have told me before, Mumbai seems to be the best spot to find records in India. A friend suggested me to try to get in touch with Mr. Suresh Chandvankar, the head of The Society Of Indian Record Collectors. That’s what I did and Mr. Chandvankar spontaneously got back to me and invited me to his house! He also asked what records I was looking for and forwarded my wantlist to many of his collector friends and dealers. Unfortunately not much turned out to be affordable since I don’t pay high prices for records. Anyways, Suresh sorted some records of his own collection for me. He made a selection of mostly instrumental 7inches and other stuff to which we listened to at his home. Suresh is mainly known for his extensive collection of early gramophone music. This is what led to his participation in a very interesting book about the early Bombay Jazz scene: “Taj Mahal Foxtrott – The Story Of Bombay’s Jazz Age”. Suresh put together the compilation CD which comes with the book. All tracks have been recorded from his gramophone records.
While browsing through the book I come across a page which talks about “The Savages”, one of India’s first rock bands who had an important role in the early beat scene that came up in Bombay around 1965. I picked up a rare “live” record of them in Delhi. Apparently, it’s a fake live record since all the applauses on the tracks sound the same. I learn from the book how the Savages started playing at first rock and roll nights often called names such as “A little bit of Liverpool”. It all started after The Beatles’ first singles made it to India’s pressing plants. Most bands in this period were only playing cover songs of famous British tunes. It was strictly forbidden to import electric guitars and amps since the government wanted to keep the foreign imperialistic influences away. Musicians used locally made instruments and speakers which often sounded very wrong. Shortly after the Savages released their first own compositions, a rock-music contest was launched. The “Simla Beat” Contest sponsored by the Simla Cigarette brand pushed many bands towards the freshly born rock-scene. Later the Savages combined with another band “The Brief Encounter” and became “The Savage Encounter”.
Anyways, back to the present. It’s Friday and I’m lucky since it’s the day of the flee market where Suresh proposes to take me to. Suresh is a daily walker so we’re enjoying a 30 min walk to there. The place is even busier than India’s roads are usually. On Friday’s the shops in the area close and make space for everyone who wants to sell stuff in front of their shops. Here and there a few records are lying in between metal objects, lunchboxes and other everyday life utensils. I pick up a few Bollywood soundtracks and after that we head to a few record- and radio-shops that Suresh knows. We don’t have much time left so we are just passing for a quick look. I pick up their cards to come back the next day. When back on Saturday, I notice that the owners in Bombay are a bit lazy to help find the records. Maybe I was just not lucky. There are many records in the backrooms they don’t provide me access to but they bring what I ask for. Unfortunately, it takes ages since the records are stacked up vertically into 1m high piles. I’m spending a few hours at one of them anyways, which allows me to listen to the wax on an old turntable which is plugged into 2 great speakers who are on a shelve up the door. The sound is great! I pick up many instrumental 7 inches as well as a great album by Usha And The Sound.
It’s a live recording from a concert in Calcutta in 1984. 2x 25 minutes on red vinyl. Usha is talking a lot to the audience who interferes by clapping and singing. The mood is great and makes you feel like you were one of the witnesses of this great unique moment back in the days. The music is ranging from Jazz, over hit-covers to psychedelic rock and to close the concert she played this unique sounding long Punjabi folk song with psychedelic guitars and keyboards on it! In the next shop I discover another great record and it will be the last one for this trip. Have a listen to Raga-Jazz-Style by Shankar Jaikishan and Rais Khan!
I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you want to listen to more of the music I found, a few sets of Indian disco, jazz and psych will pop-up on different websites during the next months.
Thanks for reading, listening and sharing the music!