Interview July 16, 2015
Bodega City: Gary Sullivan on Music in New York
In preparation for the new Afropop broadcast, "Sounds Like Brooklyn," producer Jesse Brent invited Bodega Pop blog founder Gary Sullivan to the APWW headquarters, where they talked about Gary's favorite bodegas around New York City. Sullivan is a poet who invented the flarf style, defined as "Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control." In addition to his blog, he also hosts a weekly three-hour radio show on WFMU's Give the Drummer Radio. In the weeks after the interview, Gary accompanied Jesse on trips to Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx, where they tracked down some incredible CDs and cassettes at bodegas and music stores. Jesse Brent: Can you start off by introducing yourself? Gary Sullivan: My name is Gary Sullivan and I’ve lived in New York since 1997. I’ve been collecting music from around the world since around that time, a little bit earlier, maybe, but it really started for me when I moved to New York. I started collecting music mostly around the Atlantic Avenue and Court Street area. There used to be a placed called Rashid Music, an Arabic place, that I used to frequent a lot. And then I started to realize that there were bodegas that sold this kind of music that I was very interested in, and, over the course of 15 years or so I’ve been collecting CDs from around the world, mostly from mom-and-pop stores, most of which are bodegas, some of which are media stores--VCD stores, DVD stores, Bollywood shops, or Hong Kong film shops, which also have music. I’m predominantly a writer and poet, and I make my living as an editor and writer, but probably my real love is music, so I just can’t help myself. I started a blog called Bodega Pop in 2010, which was not very well trafficked for about the first year. I abandoned it, and then, in 2011 I resurrected it, and then I kind of went whole hog, and now, as a result of that, I’m doing a show on WFMU’s Give the Drummer Radio, which is an alternative stream of the WFMU station in New Jersey. I do a weekly three-hour show around the idea of music that I’ve picked up, but also generally, around the idea of music from around the world. I’ve actually read a little bit of your poetry. I’ve read some of the flarf stuff, which is hilarious. Flarf is what I probably would have been best known for if I hadn’t abandoned it and more pursued music. More recently, I’ve done a book of translations for Ugly Duckling press, which is actually probably not too far from here--the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus. Anyway, for Ugly Duckling, I did a little translated book of Ernst Herbeck, who’s an Austrian schizophrenic poet, who started writing stuff in the 1960s, and then, yes, flarf, the movement which I gave name to and started and then co-founded this list that a bunch of us were on, and pretty much fell apart in 2010. Basically, since then, I’ve been focused on music--writing about music a little bit, but mostly collecting it and doing this show. My idea was, very naively, I wanted to start a record label back in 2006 or 2007. I thought it might be interesting to start a label with some of this music I was collecting, because people don’t necessarily know about it outside of the country where it’s being listened to, and in the diaspora who are listening to it in other places, and people were starting to pay attention to these compilations that were coming out from places like Cambodia and African music and so on. I had run a small press, so I thought it would be pretty easy to start a record label, which is not true, but this is my thinking. I talked to Kenny Goldsmith, who’s also a poet, who worked for WFMU for many many years, and I told him one night, “You know, I’d like to start this record label.” And he just kind of laughed at me, because he knows I’m not independently wealthy. He knows I don’t have any independently wealthy friends, and that’s basically the way to have a label. You really have to have money. You have to have capital, especially for something like this. He encouraged me to get a blog. That conversation was probably in 2009. And at first my feelings were hurt, because I thought, I can do this. I’m just not the kind of person who thinks that I can’t do something. But then I thought about it more and more and I realized that probably he’s right. The amount of money to sink into that would have been more than I was used to sinking into presses for books. So I started a blog, and the blog was not very popular, and I basically let it die after six months or so. And then I moved to Queens from Brooklyn, and I started up the blog again, because I didn’t really have too much else to do at the time. I wasn’t involved in the poetry world at the time, and I decided I would take my energies elsewhere, and that seemed to be where I would focus it, even though I only had two or three friends looking at this blog, but then it started to take off. People at WFMU were looking at it. Doug Schulkind, who runs the alternative stream, was looking at it, and he used to write write a column for WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, "Mining the Audio Motherlode." He was a big fan of music blogs. He started to point out mine quite a bit, and then he asked me, “Would you like to do a show?” I said yes, because I wanted to do it, but I knew nothing about radio. The learning curve on it was pretty stiff for me, being technologically challenged. It took me about a year to get up to speed, to figure out how to do it. So now I’ve been doing it since January 2014. I started doing the show, and, as a result, I haven’t been posting to my blog that often, but I’m still going out and finding things. As you probably know, the boroughs are especially rich. I haven’t been to Staten Island, but every other one has huge immigrant populations. I believe the figures are a third of all New York residents are immigrants and two-thirds of all people in New York are either immigrants or their kids. That accounts for the huge amount of bodegas that are run by people from other countries and their offspring, and these mom-and-pop media stores. I started getting into Arabic music. I lived not too far, at that time, from a place on Fifth Avenue and 15th street. There was a Syrian bodega there that I went to and the woman was very nice. The CDs were probably bootlegged. She probably made copies of them and then sold them, and they were very cheap--like four bucks, five bucks. So, it was very easy to make mistakes--to buy stuff and not know what you were getting, but then learn over time what the music was. People would get to know me at these places, get to know what I liked, talk to me about it, and then recommend things. The woman at the Syrian place, which no longer exists--she recommended a Syrian artist for me to listen to, this woman named Assala Nasri, who is great, and who I picked up and loved. I also happened to pick up this woman Najwa Karam, who’s Lebanese, and I also already knew about Umm Kulthum, so I picked up some of her stuff. And then when I came back, she would recommend more things. I remember once, she had her daughter recommend some stuff, because she thought, ‘Oh, the daughter’s younger and maybe had her pulse on more hip stuff.’ Not everyone’s friendly. In my old neighborhood, there was an old Albanian store. It was a very, very tiny store and when I made my interest in their music known, they basically tried to get rid of me. I don’t know what they suspected or thought, but they just weren’t interested. So I would have to come in and try to fake my way through, and point at the CD and just buy it. Or if I found out something I liked online somehow, try to fake my way through the pronunciation, which I’m admittedly very terrible at. I think my favorite story on your blog is the one at the Algerian store, where the woman’s asking about how you’re going to celebrate Algerian Independence Day. That’s in Brooklyn and that place was on Court Street. It was about two or three doors down from the place I just mentioned, Rashid. Rashid Music was around forever. I think it may have even started out in the ‘50s or ‘60s. They published records. It was several generations of people that ran that store. I think they finally closed down a couple years ago. But a couple doors down from them was this place that looks like a place to buy cellphone cards and maybe a few other things, but when you go inside, there are huge racks of CDs and cassettes. I came in with a very specific request for her, because I had just seen at some Brooklyn hipster movie house an evening of Egyptian movies and music. There was a scene with Abdel Halim Hafez on the Nile, singing this amazing song to this really incredibly gorgeous woman who’s up in her home. Anyway, I went in, asking this woman if she knew what it was. She called her friends, trying to track it down. And I bought a bunch of this guy’s work. It was July 4th, and Algerian Independence Day was the next day, and I remember her saying, “You need to look at this place” that she had an advertisement for in this paper, that was selling whole baby goats, and she was convinced that what we wanted to do was to buy the baby goat, and invite a bunch of friends and celebrate Algerian Independence Day in the park, because probably that’s what she was doing. Some bodega owners really become very invested in the fact that someone who’s not part of their immediate community is coming in and listening to their music. They want to know about me, and then also make certain assumptions about me, too--that I’m more invested in it, maybe, than I am. I had a marriage proposal at another place. A woman wanted me to marry her sister. This was a place not too far from here where we’re talking, in Brooklyn, in Bay Ridge--a place called Princess Music. And I suspect it was run by people from Morocco, because the woman who made the proposition was from Morocco. She thought that since I was very invested in the music--I would go there quite often--she thought maybe I would be interested in meeting her sister. And she flat-out said, “I would like to introduce you to my sister, because you guys would consider getting married. I’m looking for someone to marry my sister.” There’s a really great connection that is made between people when something like this happens, at least, that’s been my experience, or they just don’t want you in the place. Or they’re very suspicious of you, maybe because they are doing some illegal pirating or maybe they’re just worried because an immigrant might be worried about some white person coming in and asking a bunch of questions. I think that’s very valid for someone who’s new to the country to be concerned. But yeah, the woman at the phone card place was very invested in us getting a baby goat. Which we did not do. I am very sad to say. I can’t imagine getting a baby goat. It just seems like a lot of work and we were just not prepared for it. I’m not sure we had enough friends who would come out to Brooklyn where we were living at the time and help us eat it, should we have even gotten a goat. To talk about some of the bodegas that are still around that you go to… I know one of the ones I’d like to check out if it’s still there is Blessing Udeagu. Absolutely, Blessing Udeagu is great. If you have a car. I hope you have a car. I have access to a car. Great. I always take my bike. I would go out there by bike because it’s on 100-and-something street in Corona, Queens. I stopped initially because I was thirsty and I noticed there was a place next door that I went to and got a water. And then I was just standing there and realized, Oh my gosh, there’s a sign here that there’s Nigerian videos. Well, if there’s Nigerian videos, the likelihood that they’re selling music is pretty great. And I didn’t at that time have any Nigerian music. I didn’t know where to get it. So I went in, and it turned out to be a copy shop, where they had a bunch of copy machines. There was also in the window a bunch of used books for sale, and then there was a wall of Nigerian videos. They had a whole rack of music. A lot of the music, I noticed, was religious music and then there was music from the urban centers, and Igbo music, other music from other areas that were in different languages. I basically bought a bunch of them. They were about $7 a piece. One of the women, when she saw what I was digging through and looking at, told me to get this one CD called Flashback, which is basically a collection of Nigerian popular music from the ‘70s, which has people like the Semi Colon, the Wrinklar Experience, the Wings, if you’re familiar with these bands at all. I was actually listening to it yesterday. It’s so awesome. It’s so incredible. She absolutely demanded that I take it home, because she knew, somehow that I would be really into it, and she was absolutely right. And so, I went back a few times since, but I can’t guarantee it still exists. There’s a place in Queens I would go to a lot that had Burmese music that’s actually in someone’s apartment. There’s a Thai place that I’ve been to fairly recently that’s actually a restaurant and a little store. I interviewed the owner briefly, and she told me she used to sell little VHS videos. Down the street from where I live in Astoria, there's a Greek place that's been there forever. There’s a Bosnian-run place that only has a few items, that I bought a couple things from. I usually have two questions at hand when I walk in a place: number one is, “Do you have any hip-hop and rap?” Because I love hip hop and rap from around the world. Every culture, I believe, produces it at this point. And some of it is crazy-wonderful. So I’m always on the lookout for that. I went in there and found probably one of the greatest Balkan hip-hop artists working now--this guy Edo Maajka. There was something there of his and it was terrific. It’s a greatest hits record, but it’s not a compiled greatest hits. He went into the studio with studio musicians and recorded things that had been originally sampled with studio musicians and re-recorded all this stuff. It’s phenomenal. It’s really amazing. So I got something from him and this other guy, Frenkie, who is part of the Balkan hip-hop scene. I haven’t really asked people why they buy what they buy, for instance. I think that would be kind of interesting to go around and ask some of these people. My suspicion is that there is sentimental value for themselves, and then what they think is going to sell to the community. But I’ll be honest, a lot of this stuff is not sold, since 2005 or '06. There’s a Czech place I discovered in my neighborhood, which now has nothing left, because I decimated it and maybe some other people decimated it after I put it on my blog and talked about it. And that stuff had been sitting there since the ‘90s. There’s very few places that have brand-new stuff. There’s a place called the Nile Deli, which maybe you read about on my blog. It’s on Steinway St, more or less walking distance from my house. And they still get new stuff. It’s the last surviving Arabic music place that I know of. There must be others, but all the places that I knew about in Brooklyn are gone. You might want to look around that neighborhood and see if anything’s popped up, because I’ve had listeners tell me there is something still there. So we might want to go there, around Fifth Avenue and look in the Bay Ridge area. I’m definitely up for going all around, going for a bit of an adventure. What else do you know in Queens that’s still around? There may be some stuff in Flushing that’s still there. In Jackson Heights, there’s at least one place, a Punjabi-run place that maybe you’d want to go to. I’ve been told by people that we’d be able to find some stuff in Jamaica [Queens]. If you go out to Jamaica and take the last stop. In that neighborhood, there’s a lot of people from Jamaica, Haiti, other islands, and supposedly, there’s a lot of places where you can get music, maybe even new music. So we may want to check that out. I’ve never been there. I’ve gotten stuff from the islands, but in the Bronx. I have not been out to Jamaica yet, which I would like to do. Have you ever been to Sau Voi? It’s a banh mi place in Chinatown that also has a bunch of cassettes and records. I think I’ve been inside there, and I did in fact buy one thing that I actually posted to my blog and played on the air. What I usually look for in Vietnamese places is older things. Vietnamese music tends to be one of two kinds of things--it will either be music that has been created by the diaspora here in the United States, usually for import back into Vietnam and other places--France, for instance--or it’s recordings of pre-1975 recorded material, and it’s being repackaged. Sometimes it’s being repackaged without any adjustment to the sound; sometimes they will add Casio keyboard playing, or drum machine, because maybe some of the original recording drops out and you can’t hear it so well, so they add some of that in, thinking it’ll make it sound better. That place didn’t have any older stuff, which is usually what I’m looking for, or hip-hop. But I did pick up one thing, thinking that it might be more traditional, and it was, and it was phenomenal. But I haven’t been back there. To be honest with you, the Vietnamese stuff, and I’ve got a lot of it--most of it actually came from Chicago and Montreal, which both have really big communities. In Chicago, off the Red Line, there’s this humongous Vietnamese movie and music store that I went into that also had Thai stuff and Filipino stuff. That’s where I got my first Vietnamese hip-hop. I remember asking the woman, “Do you have any Vietnamese hip hop?” She said, “Have you heard Vietnamese hip-hop?” She’s looking at me like, because I don’t think you’re going to like it very much. I had not heard Vietnamese hip-hop, but I’m usually very open to whatever, so I bought it anyway and it turned out that I absolutely loved it. It’s great. I’ve heard that Vietrap compilation. Which is basically entirely from this one store. It’s comprised of about six or seven CDs that I bought there, all for about $5 a piece--five or six of which are compilations, one or two which was one guy. I think these guys might be Americans actually. I have not been able to figure them out yet. I think they may be living in Southern California perhaps or I may be wrong and they may very well be from Vietnam. But my sense is that a lot of music is produced here for export and then import into Vietnam. The existing economy seems to go in the opposite direction at this point, so that would make more sense than bringing in stuff. You’ve already got people in the United States exporting stuff out that’s being made by Vietnamese people for export into Vietnam. Have you ever tried to contact any of the artists that you’ve featured on the website? I have, to limited success. After avoiding Hong Kong music for a long time and just really being more interested in Hong Kong cinema, and thinking that Hong Kong music was kind of just overblown and awful, I got myself schooled by picking up this CD with a big booklet called My Dream My Way My Indie Music by a woman called Rebecca Pan, who had a couple of fairly significant bit parts in Wong Kar Wai movies. Rebecca lives, I believe, in Hong Kong now, but she did live in Canada for a while. She was originally from Shanghai. This record was a self-financed record of independent Hong Kong acts, sort of alt bands in Hong Kong, re-recording songs that she had made famous, most of which she did not write, like “Siboney,” which is a very famous old Cuban song from the ‘30s. There’s a couple of really amazing things and so then I realize, there are these bands called My Little Airport. There’s a band called Ketchup. There’s a band called the Pancakes, and several others. At17 is another. And I’m thinking, ‘I need to find out who they are.’ So I start finding music by these bands. After a couple years of doing all of this, listening and tracking stuff down, last year, I had an opportunity. I proposed to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, “Let me do a talk on Rebecca Pan and the independent music scene in Hong Kong,” and they accepted it. I was Facebook friends at that time with Ketchup and My Little Airport and I had ordered albums from the Pancakes, who’s actually just one woman, Dejay Choi. She never responded to my requests to talk. Ketchup and My Little Airport both responded to my requests to interview them. So I sent them both these long series of interview questions, but I only heard back from Ketchup, who’s this one guy, Ken Tsoi. He goes by Ketchup Ken on Facebook. So that was the only time. I had long ago abandoned the idea of starting a label, so there’s no reason for me to get in touch with artists, from my point of view. I’ve had artists get in touch with me, mainly either wanting to get on a show, which I’ve done--on the radio show--or just saying, “Here’s some new material from us if you want to play it on your show,” but less so about the blog and more the radio show. I’ve been deciding whether to write a book about stuff I’m doing, listening to, the bands. I have a vague idea of doing something, maybe one of those 33 ⅓ books. I’d like to do one about a Cambodian release that came out originally on cassette in 1974 and then was re-released by this place called Metal Postcards in Hong Kong, mainly because this documentary, Don't Think I've Forgotten came out about Cambodian rock 'n' roll. I got involved with the people that made it and made a show on WFMU about it, had them on, had the filmmaker, John Pirozzi, on, and Nate Hun, who found most of the music for it, who had most of the stuff on vinyl. He’s Cambodian-American. And I got in touch with the people at Metal Postcards to see if I could interview them too and try to do a 33 ⅓ book. My feeling is there’s no particular reason for them to focus on this Cambodian album, which is called Drakkar 74, because what does it have to do with the United States? My point of entry would be is that music is becoming increasingly influential in our culture and is now influencing more bands too, because bands that come up now are taking some of this material and using it, even if it’s subconsciously or not self-consciously. I can’t imagine that not happening, because there’s so much more material from around the world that’s being listened to and digested by people in the United States now that it’s got to be affecting the music industry, the production end at this point. My end would be basically to interview the person that’s putting it out who’s in Hong Kong. And that would be a fascinating story because obviously these guys all escaped death by Pol Pot. I think maybe one or two of them did die during that period, the four or five years when Pot was in power. But most of them survived. They’re still here. They just played in the United States. So it’s kind of a fascinating story. But my end would be talking about the compilation as such, talking about it and then going back and doing some research about what are the figures for that now. Is it really selling? Is it an economy of its own? Is it a micro-economy within the general economy of the music industry now? Because it seems like they’re all run by independent people, for the most part. So that does constitute a micro-economy. I’d like to look at that. I wanted to ask you about one specific album that you posted, which was the Maruja Serrano album. It was one of my favorite things I found on the blog. I got all the Ecuadorian CDs in Jackson Heights. I remember taking a week off work and deciding I’m going to go get me some decent Mexican or South American food, which I had yet to really have. It’s not easy to find in New York. I’m from California, where it’s vast and plentiful, and here, it’s a little more difficult. So, I found on Chowhound, someone had created a Google map of all of the different taco and quesadilla and tamale trucks that lined the streets around East Jackson Heights. I printed out the map and then I went out there one morning, and found all these women making sopes with cornmeal, all this great stuff, but then I also discovered these Ecuadorian stores. In one of them, I found a bunch of old Ecuadorian stuff. Julio Jaramillo was a big guy in Ecuador. I saw his stuff everywhere. And this woman, I really don’t know much about. That was actually recent. That was not from the original time I went there. I went later on and I got this off the street, now that I’m thinking about it. A woman had a table on the street and she sold me a bunch of CDs for a cheap price. I don’t honestly know what the market is for these kinds of things anymore. I get the feeling, talking to certain people, that there is none. I talked to the woman at the Thai restaurant called Thailand Central Point, which is half-Thai restaurant, half-Thai market. She used to have for sale a bunch of cassettes, and she threw them all away. She used to also have a bunch of VHS tapes and she threw them all away. She still has CDs, as far as I know. I could go there tomorrow and discover that she’s thrown all those away. The market--everywhere I go is drying up. The place where I get a lot of my Mexican and Colombian and Panamanian and Dominican, Costa Rican music from, which is literally down the street from me in Astoria--they aren’t even really a grocery store. They’re more of a curio shop. You go in and there are some flags. There are Mexican wrestling masks. There are phone cards. There’s jewelry. And then a massive amount of CDs, which, when I first started going there, they were selling for $5 or three for $10. Now, when I go in, it’s a dollar apiece. And shockingly great stuff there. The range of material there is everywhere from Southern California hip-hop--people like Eazy-E, Brownside--to electro-cumbia. I’ve bought just monster amounts of material there. I bought a bunch of hip-hop stuff, like Calle 13 and Control Machete. But clearly, it’s not selling anymore. They have them in these massive stacks, which, basically, they hide, and when I come in, it’s like a dollar a piece, “Cart them away, please. The next time we see you, I’d like to see you with a giant cart taking this stuff away from us.” The days of CDs are over, which basically means the days of my opportunities for finding things are vastly limited and running out, because doing what I do does not necessarily require me knowing any languages. To do it online, you’ve got to start learning the scripts. You’ve got to figure out how to search for things. I had to do a little bit of that recently, but when I found all this stuff, basically, it’s being sold really cheaply, so I can afford to buy and make mistakes if I need to, and it’s right there where I can kind of take a look at it and have some sense what it is. I’m wrong maybe even half the time, maybe more than half the time, but sometimes I’m right. So when I’m right and it’s good, it’s actually kind of amazing. But the window for this is closing. I’ve heard reports that bodegas are closing down, and they are closing supposedly, like, one a day, but there are so many of them here in New York City that even if they do close at that rate, it’s going to take years--half a decade or a decade for them to all be wiped off the planet, and I don’t think they ever will necessarily be wiped out completely. Hopefully not. It’s the way that a lot of people that come here make money--it’s their primary income.