James Rugami runs a business that is clearly stuck in history – a time when bell-bottoms were the in thing, Micheal Jackson was still black and music blared from vinyl records
Harriet James @PeopleDailyKe
Vinyl is back, and in a big way. Odd as it sounds, after being wiped out a few decades ago with the rise of digital downloads and cassettes, this antique is presently the coolest way to listen to music. And of course there’s the nostalgia.
Many people just pine for the old days as vinyl creates a mood of sentimental reminiscence. One man that understands the value of this old, but gold treasure is James Rugami, whose thriving shop, in the bustling Kenyatta Market, is evidence of the success of this industry.
It is impossible to get lost at stall 570, which blends in with the smoky aromas of nyama choma in the small alleyways of the thronging market. If you are not keen, you might mistake him for one of the butchers, but his pride and joy is strictly selling vinyl records.
On this day that I take a trip to his stall, he dons dark jeans and a beige long-sleeved shirt top. His customary Jaramogi hat, which is in almost all his photos, adorns his graying head. I find him serving a customer who had just come to check whether her order had finally arrived.
He welcomes me with a warm smile and my curious eye couldn’t help but notice the records, old record players, tapes, a few vintage film cameras as well as some old shellac discs.
“Mr Records” as he is popularly referred to, never had a passion for music in his early days. As he admits, the first time he saw a radio was when his father bought one when he was in high school.
“My family was not a musical family. The first time I saw a radio – not a record or cassette player, just a simple radio – was when I was in high school. There wasn’t a record player in our home until 1979,” recalls Rugami.
He was employed as an untrained teacher soon after finishing high school in Kapendwa, Baringo. The conditions were harsh as he failed to receive his payment for four months.
This triggered him to travel all the way to Meru just to demand for his pay. It was here that he met a young woman who was in the hawking business. She showed him where to buy handkerchiefs and biros.
He settled for hawking and quit his teaching job. But after some time, he got tired of selling clothes as everyone in the market was in the same business. After researching on what the people of Meru town loved, he found out one item that could sell more – music.
“There was only one music shop in Meru. I closed my clothes shop and opened a small cubicle shop where I sold cassettes and records,” he says. This was in 1987 when he began the music business in Gakoromone market in Meru.
With a borrowed record player from his elder brother that wasn’t working, he began sourcing for the best cassettes from far. He even lowered prices to attract customers. But his love for records never stopped despite the fact that in 1988, there was a drop in record sales.
“Almost everyone bought cassettes. But for some reasons, I never stopped buying the records even from closing shops,” he admits.
The music business transformed him into a DJ of some sorts and he could be invited from time to time to do gigs in clubs. His main clients were at the Nanyuki military barracks. Sadly, Rugami was a family man and the fast lane of DJ life did not appeal to him. He opted to quit and relocated to Nairobi to start a new life.
“I had a small family. HIV/Aids was prevalent those days, with the best ladies and wine available for the spinmaster’s taking. I relocated to Ndakaini before making my move to the big city – Nairobi,” he says.
In 1989, he set up shop at Kenyatta Market and started selling music. His elder sister had a stall there and he used it for four months.
Since then, the shop has survived the decline of vinyl, the popularity of tapes, the birth of CDs as well as the threat of piracy by adapting to the changing trends. His clientele comprises both the young and old, some bringing their father’s old record players to be restored.
However, while records were not selling at all, he would buy vinyl whenever he came across it, and he soon accumulated a large collection of foreign and African records.
Aside from selling 7” and 12” vinyl records, he restores broken record players and collects antiques such as 1920s iron boxes and gramaphones. The only other artefacts in his shop are work-in-progress record players, which go for as high as a Sh150,000.
For Rugami, the store is not just about making cash, but also about identity and roots. From time to time he welcomes 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?’ Having been the only one in charge of the stall since it started, His only worry was who will take it on. He is now happy that his eldest son, Ndegwa Gaturi is eager to learn the business and he can now retire and tour the world.