RFI | In the Deido neighborhood of Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital, you’ll find a small shop belting out authentic music on vinyl from the 1980s and 90s—Disco Saint Paul. A shining example of how traditional records still remain the top choice for music purists over modern streaming and mp3s.
Record store owner and manager Ntchagna Paul owns up to 5,000 vinyl records of numerous musical genres: Makossa, Rumba, French and American tracks.
Paul has been collecting, selling and lovingly curating his records for over 25 years, but he does not stock modern music. The music merchant believes that his records are one of the last products of musical hard work and devotion from artists.
“Music was done well, unlike today when everyone sings anything,” he tells Africa Calling podcast, describing how music now just does not make the grade.
“Music was so well done, it was animated. Look at 80s songs, they were good, until the arrival of CDs. Up to now, people still go back to them. Even when music directors want good things, they still go back to old music. It’s because it was good music, not what they play today,” Paul explains.
His friendly rival in the Akwa-Douala neighborhood, just 2km from ‘Disco Saint Paul’ is ‘Valdano Music’, who has been peddling vinyl for 30 years.
Owner Valdano also laments the coming of modern forms of music; not just for its artistic and moral shortcomings, but because it has handicapped their business.
Both men are nostalgic for the good old days, when selling records was a real money-making business. When vinyl records were the norm and the only means of getting music, they made between 20-30,000 Central African Francs (FCFA), or about €30 to €45 a day, which was a lot back then.
“Music used to pay, in every way– we were even overloaded with customers,” says Valdano.
“We even used to refuse some customers because we had so many of them. Some had to wait for even two or three days before we could serve them, they were abundant,” he adds, reminiscing.
One of Valdano’s best and most regular customers, Alain Tchamake, believes that old music is still the greatest, as it has stood the test of time.
“When I listen to old songs, it reminds me of my youth. It was well done; the bass, guitar, drum…today someone just sits behind his computer and does everything. They went to the studio, worked and practiced,” Tchamake says, criticizing production techniques.
He rattles off his favourite Makossa artists like Ekambi Brilliant, Toto Guillaume, Francois Misse Ngoh and Emile Ekange.
“I’ll love them till I’m old. I love their songs! I love them because they work well,”Tchamake declares passionately.
Music in the 21st century churns out billions of euros for those who work digitally, but vinyl record sellers nowadays don’t enjoy the financial flow.
Today, both Paul and Valdano go for days, even weeks without receiving any customers, which has crippled their earnings.
The situation in Cameroon stands in contrast to elsewhere in the world, where vinyl has seen somewhat of a resurgence, despite digital becoming the de facto format in the industry. Many music lovers in the West enthuse about the physical, tactile and analogue nature of vinyl compared to invisible streaming or MP3s, which lack physical covers or involve the same methodical process for playing on a turntable.
This trend is not apparent in Cameroon, where more accessible and disposable digital music formats now dominant the market.
“Before, music used to give us a livelihood. But today, with the digital world, there is no way out, we are just struggling,” laments Valdano. “I can spend the whole day like this and go back home with nothing,” he says, speaking in his empty shop.
“There are just a few customers, passionate about old music, and who maybe don’t yet have devices to download songs as many do, who still come by. But we are barely surviving,” he adds.
At Disco Saint Paul, advancement in technology has also affected more than just the number of customers, but also Paul’s ability to play his vinyl records. He’s now unable to use any of his four turntables because of he lacks an essential part of his record player– the needle.
Needles used to be imported from neighboring Nigeria, but they are not produced or available anymore from his distributors.
Old skool v New skool
On another side of town in ‘Ancien Troisieme’ neighborhood, it is a different story for digital music vendors, like Lobe Toto. Their stalls, lined up one after the other, blast modern music like “Le Nyama” by Aveiro Djess, or “Caleçon” by Ko-C ft. Coco Argentée, to entice buyers.
While record stores are filled with vinyl records and turntables, here in the digital music business sector, computers, smartphones, USB keys, memory cards, loud speakers are the norm, and of course that includes an internet modem like on Toto’s work table.
Toto, in his 20s, makes a living by downloading music videos and audio from the internet and selling to his customers. He says that in 2014-2015, it was a very lucrative business from which he earned more than 1,000 FCFA a day, or about €150. But now, most people download music from their smart phones.
“Nowadays, it is very difficult to earn 5,000 FCFA because we have to go an extra mile to persuade customers. It’s not easy, very difficult,” he says, saying that he has to hustle on the street to get customers to buy.
The coronavirus pandemic has made things even worse for business, whether it’s vinyl or MP3s.
At Valdano Music, the owner muses about how Covid-19 has affected what little business he did have.
“Even some rare customers who used to come have lost their jobs and some don’t have any revenues anymore. Activity is at a standstill,” says Paul.
Passion, according to Paul, is what keeps him in the business, and he enjoys educating the younger generation about records, which many had never seen before. The curiosity of children from the “Android generation” also keeps them going.
“Sometimes, children come here saying they want to exchange textbooks, and I tell them these are records. When I play a record, they’re surprised! To them it’s fun and they are amazed, and I like that too,” he says.
When asked why they stay in vinyl records business, both Paul and Valdano say they have no other option because it is what they know best.
“I only invested in it. I don’t see what else I can do at my age. Learning a different trade with no revenue and so on, it’s difficult,” says Valdano.
“That’s why I stay here and struggle, just to have a little income to survive,” he adds.