Digging for Gold

For 20 years music buyer Frank Lord has maintained the city’s best international music section, first for Rose Records’ flagship store and now for Tower Records on Wabash–in fact, it’s the most successful such section in the entire Tower chain. The selection at Tower is impressively comprehensive–pop from Japan, Senegal, France, and everywhere in between, cantorial recordings, Turkish folk, the full range of Latin music–and Lord is dedicated enough to try to satisfy most needs and interests. But for the extra-curious, poking around in mom-and-pop groceries, video stores, and gift shops in the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods can turn up gems you’ll never find under Tower’s fluorescent lights. For the most part the music will also be less expensive–and in some cases, the food’s great, too.

There are countless shops all over the city with small stashes of cheaply made cassettes for sale behind the counter, and it would be impossible to compile a complete list. What follows is a decidedly personal selection of some of the more interesting places I’ve run across.

The stretch of Devon near its intersection with Western is ground zero for Chicago’s sizable Indian population. Among the restaurants, bakeries, butcher shops, and fabric and electronics stores that line the sidewalks is an abundance of video stores, most of which also sell music from India. The one with the largest variety is Bombay Video (2634 W. Devon, 773-743-5575). The shop is crammed with cassettes, CDs, and videos–India’s film industry is three times as prolific as ours–and most of them are stacked high behind the CD-filled glass counters. At first glance it’s not the best place for browsing, but garrulous proprietor Sujay Shah seems to have memorized the location of every recording in the dozens of apparently random piles and is exceedingly helpful. Bombay Video stocks a huge selection of Indian film music and bhangra, and while most neighboring shops carry music from northern India’s classical Hindustani tradition, hardly any boast as broad a selection of southern India’s less restrained, Islamic-influenced carnatic music. On a recent visit I found a terrific collection of carnatic music performed by Sheik Chinna Moulana on the nadasvaram, an oboelike instrument that’s nearly four feet long and produces a piercing, nasal tone. Also worth checking out in the area are Atlantic Video Rentals (2541 W. Devon, 773-338-3600) and Al-Mansoor Video (2600 W. Devon, 773-764-7576).

Another video store to visit for music-hunting purposes is MDD Records and Video (5609 N. Broadway, 773-728-9288). The “records” in the name is misleading–five or six water-warped LP jackets hang on one dusty wall–but this noisy, incense-choked shop does feature a good selection of African music, primarily from Nigeria. A weird mix of Hollywood and African films is flanked by display cases with a modest array of CDs and a better selection of cassettes, including obscure titles from Nigerian superstars like King Sunny Ade, IK Dairo, Barrister, and Ebenezer Obey; there are also a handful of concert videos by such artists. I recently picked up a Sunny Ade tape called Syncro System Movement that documents the raw energy of the Lagos legend before his more commercial bid for stateside success in 1982.

The display window of the Greektown Gift & Music Shop (330 S. Halsted, 312-263-6342) makes it look like little more than a chintzy tourist snare, but one glance inside proves otherwise: while the somewhat antiseptic store does stock Greek fisherman’s caps, miniature replicas of the Venus de Milo, and Greek editions of Playboy, the bulk of its space is occupied by CDs. Music rarely gets more egregiously overwrought than Greek pop, of which there’s plenty here, but the country’s folk traditions ooze vitality. This store also features an extensive variety of rembetika and amanedhes, rebel forms that thrived early this century; they’re often referred to as Greek blues for their potent emotional expression and lyrics describing a debauched underworld existence, with song titles like “Why I Smoke Cocaine” and “The Junkie’s Lament.” On a stop there last week a pal picked up a strange compilation of 60s garage bands from Athens, and I got a stunning CD of 1930s recordings by “the grandfather of rembetika,” Markos Vamvakaris, who had a voice as throaty and gruff as Howlin’ Wolf’s.

Last but not least on this southward journey is Fadi Foods (3536 W. 63rd, 773-476-4964), a dimly lit Middle Eastern grocery chockablock with garbanzo beans, pita bread, sweetmeats, and bricks of tobacco. A wall of CDs and three banks of cassettes–most of them two or three dollars–feature the music of Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, and more. While there’s a fair number of recordings by legendary Egyptian figures like Umm Kalthoum and Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, most of what you’ll find is contemporary pop music–usually a blend of passionate, melismatic vocals, melodramatic strings, and 80s synth sounds. Virtually all the titles are marked only in Arabic script, but every time I’ve stopped in one of the guys behind the counter has been happy to let me preview tapes on a boom box (most of them aren’t shrink-wrapped).

Chicago also has some decent stores carrying Jewish music (The Juke Box, 2810 W. Devon, 773-274-1269), Asian pop (PNA Book Center, 2310 W. Leland, 773-784-1797), and pop music of the Balkans (Lincoln Square Video, 4725 N. Lincoln, 773-878-3100).


This weekend Lounge Ax hosts the fifth and final annual Cardigan Festival, which benefits AIDS care and research at Howard Brown Health Center. Friday’s bill is headlined by organizer Seth Cohen’s group, Number One Cup, while Saturday features the Chicago debut of Mitch Mitchell and the Terrifying Experience, a new band led by the former Guided by Voices guitarist. “It started out being fun, but now it’s just a headache,” says Cohen, who cites the difficulty of finding big-name bands willing to commit to an unpaid gig in advance as his biggest obstacle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sujay Shah photo by Nathan Mandell.