I don’t quite remember how we discovered it, my brother and I. Did we find it after we saw him or before we saw him? I’m not even sure I saw him, a child’s memory can be so unreliable; and yet I think we saw him. I recall the crowd that suddenly filled one of our neighbours’ front veranda, the orangey wash of the street light from the pole close by casting shadows everywhere. Night had just fallen and all the boys hadn’t made their ways home yet from the football games for a wash. We were small and we had to find our way through the bigger bodies. Even for the games, we were mostly ball fetchers when the older boys were playing, or they’d ask you to play some “borbor-pain” role as their goalie. The hotness of the day that had just closed still sat on almost everyone, giving the veranda a more packed feeling than it really had. The adults were shouting at us to get out. Somehow, someone had spotted him on Tikonko Road and before he could sneak away that person had cried: “He’s here!” They’d corralled him over, a crowd had gathered, and there he was. He had his instrument. But he didn’t play. But who cared?
But then I may be imagining that first encounter. I doubt it, though.
It was probably after that encounter that we discovered the gramophone. We’d climbed up into the rafters and seen it. From all the dust that was covering it, it was hard to say it was black. Well, it wasn’t easy getting the dust off it; we never did get it off, as a matter of fact. (How can one talk matter-of-factly in such a case? You tell me.) The black cloth covering was peeling off and it was showing one dovetailed corner of the wooden frame in which the mechanism sat. Standing beside it was a Peak milk carton box with a stack of records in it, some bigger than others. How could we tell between 45s and 78s? That they were big and small was enough for us. Most of them, if my memory serves me right, had yellow labels. Was it the gramophone that had the logo of the dog sitting in front of a megaphone? Probably the records. HMV, it said.
We figured out how to work it. But the sound was disappointing, like playing a record on dead batteries. After that discovery, we couldn’t leave the thing alone. It was a toy.
“When your papa comes, I’ll tell him you won’t leave my gramophone alone.”
That was our paternal grandpa. For some reason, we never got round to calling our paternal grandparents “Mama, and Maada,” titles which we had no problem calling our mum’s parents. We called Papa’s parents by their first names.
Whether he never told his son, or Papa never took the complaints seriously, we continued to climb up into the rafters. It was quite easy. We just brought a dinning chair close to one of the windows, put a bench on top, stood on the bench, got a toehold on the sill and then in the strong wire mesh on the window, and, there you are! We never got a complete play from any record, as we always managed to under-crank the gramophone.
One day we were determined to get a full play and we duly set at getting our goal. The crank handle went slack, followed by a long sound of unwinding mechanism and a ‘boing!’ Yes, complete with an exclamation mark, take my word for it. That was the end of the gramophone. The records, mostly Salia recordings, were next to suffer from our mischief. They were gathering dust. We were then listening to Ochestre Muye and Sabannoh 75 records that were played for us children to dance to on some evenings. Ochestre Muye, Sabannoh 75 and others, with their Congolese-inflected music played on a modern electric record-changer, had consigned my grandfather’s ancient gramophone to oblivion and the abuse of children. It was as if Salia were too ancient for anything new and fancy. So the Salia records became our Frisbee, with the result that you can well imagine.
“When your papa comes, I’ll tell him you won’t leave that gramophone alone.” I know very well about the gramophone, but I never left those records alone, it would appear.