Talkin’ Bout a Vinyl Revolution

The Mother City’s music enthusiasts are back to loving the LP 

The 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary Searching for Sugarman put Cape Town’s Mabu Vinyl record store back on the map, making it a tourist attraction and pop-culture icon the world around.

The film, which tracks two South African music fans’ quest to find the much-loved guitarist and singer Sixto Rodriguez, also thrust vinyl into the spotlight at a time when records were supposed to be as dead as the famed “Sugarman” was once rumoured to be. But for the shop’s co-owner and one of the stars in the soul-touching flick, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, the return of the record has been in the making for the past decade – and not just for “old toppies”, as he likes to call them, but for today’s generation.  

“[In the past] The only vinyl in Cape Town came with the DJs playing 12 inches of house music,” he says, sitting in a little corner of his kaleidoscopic Gardens store, a space packed with hundreds of records in their sleeves, DVDs, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, books, posters and concert flyers. “But it’s changed completely; vinyl’s come back more in pop, rock, soul and jazz as opposed to the DJ stuff.”

It certainly seems like it shouldn’t be the case. Why should records be back in demand when, today, you can not only get music from practically anywhere in the world with just a scroll and a click of a mouse, but you can also get it for free? Yet indie bands (think Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and The National) and even mega artists, like Daft Punk, are releasing their albums on vinyl, pressing plants are re-opening their doors and Musica is stocking the plate-sized black discs after years of keeping them off the shelves.  There’s even an international Record Store Day every third Saturday of April in honour of independently owned record stores.

Turns out, most music lovers give the same general reasons when asked why listening to their favourite melodies on shiny, ebony-pressed vinyl beats hearing any digital version of a track. First of all, and most of all, it’s the incomparable sound quality. The intimate hisses and fireside crackling that warms from the ears to the insides gets lost when a studio recording gets compressed into digital form (it has to do with the size of the sound waves). Stephen explains the logistics using a matador and a bull: the bull is the full track as it is on an LP, but the matador squashes it and it becomes smaller, like a CD, and then the man squashes the beast even more until it’s just an OXO stock cube, which is comparable to the MP3.  

The second and third reasons have more to do with people’s compulsion to collect and their desire to hear as much as they can, a need that also rises from a fear that they’ll never hear everything. One such collector is Pierre Estienne, who, when not hand engraving jewellery in a tiny, secret nook next to a coffee shop on Long Street, can be found browsing shops, markets, churches and charity sales for long lost gems. “That’s the best,” says the Cape-Town born artist. “I went to Milnerton Market and found the sickest box of rare 7-inches from the ‘50s and ’60s. It’s quite a valuable collection of this amazing music.”

Part of the obsession also hinges on the whole listening experience: the physical act of holding the music, the album art, the plastic-y smell, the production details, lyrics, photographs, musician’s notes and inside stories (things that are lost when simply pressing play on iTunes). “You get so much information from buying records,” Pierre says emphatically. “You can read the cover and see who played each instrument and everything. When I get home, I like taking the record out, putting it on the turntable and just listening to it. You can have MP3s on repeat forever, but with a record you listen for 15 minutes and then you have to turn it over. You’re involved.”  

In 2010, Pierre and San Franciscan Jessica Cross decided to put together events in Cape Town, which they called Vinyl Digz, where they could get together with like-minded people and listen to and share their extensive collections without having to necessarily go out to clubs. The gatherings took off, and now these rooftop parties generally accommodate 150 to 200 people, making them fairly intimate sessions that feature a wide range of genres. The selectors – not DJs – can be pretty much anyone with a pile of records, and each event features a hand-picked playlist of danceable grooves from the past and present. Intimacy doesn’t mean exclusivity though; Vinyl Digz has been attracting an assortment of music lovers since its very first jam. “We had such a mixed crowed,” Pierre says, reminiscing about the first party on a rooftop garden in Loop Street. “There were people from the Cape Flats, there were people from Gugulethu, from the city, and we played some hip-hop, some RnB, house and some Afro stuff.”

Though, it’s not too remarkable that ‘50s born Stephen and ‘70s baby Pierre are preaching the gospel of vinyl since it’s the medium that dominated their respective youths (although, interestingly enough, Stephen owns an iPod while Pierre says he doesn’t want to listen to his sounds that way). But it is curious that people who grew up recording songs from the radio onto cassette tapes and downloading copious amounts of tracks via Napster and beyond are now obsessing over the old-school medium.

It could be because of a hankering for the golden age of pure rock ‘n’ roll since “everything now is post-modernism in a blender”, according to Stephen, or because the sheer accessibility of music makes people long for something tangible to relate to, says Pierre.

It’s pretty much all of the above for Atiyyah Khan. Born too late for vinyl, sometime in the late 80s, she spent most of 2013 obsessively collecting even before she got a record player. “I can really geek out on this,” she adds. Atiyyah has also helped create a place for fellow music nerds to congregate – an event called Future Nostalgia, which happens every Tuesday at the Mahogany Room.  “It was initially imagined as a small listening session focused on vinyl,” the arts journalist explains. “I was drawn to getting involved, because Cape Town has a serious lack of listening spaces.”

So since February 2013, El Corazon (Atiyyah), Boeta Gee (Graeme Arendse), At8 (Atang Tshikare), Bro Slovo (Dylan Valley) and DJ real ROZZANO (Rozzano Davids) have been attracting all kinds of people, ranging from the young hipsters to the aforementioned “toppies”, who have a desire to just sit and appreciate. “However, listening does not exclude dancing,” adds Graeme, a designer for arts and politics journal Chimurenga by day. “If the music moves you, feel free to express it with your body.” They play everything, from dub, jazz, funk and hip-hop to soul, rock, electronica and most genres in between. Guests with songs to share are welcome to bring their stack and play a set, and listeners are free to come up and discuss tracks with the selectors, which Graeme says helps create the sense of community and sharing that makes this music appreciation club what it is.

While on the surface it may look like another hipster-type fad built around the idea that anything old school is cool, the return of vinyl as a medium for music listening appears to be much more than just a trend.  The bigger picture here is that there will always be a need for the tangible, a need for connection and a need for the experience, and for that, the humble LP is the all-encompassing capsule. Now, thanks to a few especially pioneering Cape Town music lovers, record groupies and vinyl nerds are steadily getting access to pockets where they can get it all and, most importantly, share it with each other. 

Where to Get and Listen to Vinyl in Cape Town

Mabu Vinyl
Mabu Vinyl music store is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm and on Sunday from 9am to 3pm. Visit the website Mabuvinyl.co.za
2 Rheede Street | Gardens | Cape Town | +27 (0) 21 423 7635 | sugar@mabuvinyl.co.za

Vinyl Digz
Consult the Vinyl Digz Facebook page to find dates and venue info for the rooftop parties. The jams typically go down once monthly from November 2013 to March 2014.
+27 (0) 76 270 6372

Future Nostalgia
Future Nostalgia takes place every Tuesday from 8pm to 2am at the Straight No Chaser Club (formerly Mahogany Room). Get line-up info and guest details on their Facebook page.
79 Buitenkant Street | Cape Town | futurenostalgiaspace@gmail.com 

By: Tshego Letsoalo
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Check out this awesome new highly-curated record store in Obs called The Other Records.

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