QnA with Toshi Endo (Japanese lecturer and Fela Scholar)
It’s amazing that a Japanese academic is so knowledgeable in African music. How did it all begin?
In the 1970s my interest was in American folk and pop music, the singer-writer kind of music. But then all of a sudden some great music started to come from the developing world, which had a huge impact on me. That was Bob Marley. What he sang about was reality, different from the songs American used to do. So I was stunned that the kind of music could come from the peripheral of the world, Jamaica. Needless to say that I was impressed by this fact, so I looked for other music in a similar context, and I came across music from Africa, especially in Nigeria. I discovered Fela Kuti/ Afrobeat, Sunny Ade/Juju music. I was surprised that such rich music was produced in Nigeria. More and more, I went deeply into Nigerian music.
You didn’t just limit your interest to listening and enjoying the songs; you actually created a blog, a very rich discography of African music. What was the motivation for that?
African music was difficult to find in Japan. It is also difficult to get vinyl records of music made in Nigeria. The only way for me to do it was to contact record shops in London. There was a particular one called the Stern’s Radio (at the time), which was exclusively into Nigerian music. I used the mail order system of the record shop to get Nigerian music. I did that over time and my collection increased year after year. Still my collection was very limited, and as things would happen I had the opportunity to visit Nigeria in the 1980s and I collected a lot of music. Still they weren’t enough, so I collected more and more. Then I thought it was important to collected these information and make them accessible to the public, to everybody. So I decided to start a website, the discography that you referred to, at the onset of internet in the 1990s. In the beginning, I just gathered information from my personal collection and uploaded them on the site; but then many people all over the world contacted me and started to tell me what was missing, and some even helped to fill in the gaps. The database expanded and has been expanding ever since.
As they say, music is a universal language. But when you listen to African music that you have, are you able to understand the message in the songs?
To tell the truth, I don’t understand the African language and I don’t understand the message in the music, but I try to learn what the message is because I am also very interested in what the message really is. I understand that juju music has this kind of message, same for Fuji, same for Afrobeat and so on. But then you must know that music is not just about the lyrics: it is a total entity, a combination of sound, beats and, of course, lyrics. This, I think, is sufficient for me to understand the groove.
You have visited the New African Shrine, built by Femi, Fela’s son. What did you feel being in the hall?
When I came to Nigeria in the 1980s, I wanted to see a live performance by Fela but at that time he was in Italy, so I couldn’t and it was painful for me. Then he passed away and I had no chance to see his live shows. But now, I know that his children are doing very well in music and transforming Afrobeat in their own way, and they have provided a venue for live performance. This is very impressive and I was very happy to be there to see how popular the place is.
In collecting all of this music across Africa, it’s like a service to humanity and to Africa in particular. Is it that Africa is unable to preserve its own unique heritage by itself?
This is a pity. There is so much treasure of African culture and much nice music were produced in the past 30-40 years and they are all in vinyl records and most of them have been lost in Nigeria but kept in countries in Europe and Asia (Japan). Basically, nothing remains here. It is really a pity. I realize that nobody in Nigeria cares about the value of this important heritage. But this is understandable for me, in a sense, because young people are interested in other things and most are not interested in collecting mere records, when there is need for survival and the governments need to invest in infrastructure. We are just collectors and outsiders. Sad that a lot of treasure is lost in Africa, but all the same we can share the value of African heritage.
What do you do with your actual collection in Japan—are you planning for an exhibition some day?
For example most of Fela’s recordings are virtually non-existent in Nigeria and only a few of these can be found elsewhere in the world. So I collected those recordings from many collectors everywhere I could find them abroad, I edited them and the list is updated. I released a set of three CDs of his music; I am doing this as some form of payback for Fela’s fans with the help of record collectors all over the world, and several collectors are doing same with different kinds of global music.
You went vinyl hunting in Lagos. Which records did you get?
This time I got some of Fela’s recordings. Though I have most of them already but some of the jackets are not in good condition. Jackets are also important for Vinyl and I found some in that record shop in Lagos. I was very happy but they were very expensive. It’s okay. I preserve these records and sometimes later, I return same to the public by scanning them onto the site and re-issuing them in CD formats. I am indeed happy to do this.
Will I be right to say that you have more interest in Fela and Afrobeat than in other genres of Afrobeat?
No, no, no. I love all the music equally. I love Afrobeat, Juju, Fuji, Sakara, Apala, waka and highlife—I love all the Yoruba and Ibo music. Thya all have special attraction for me.
You have just recently been to Kinsasha. What was it like in that part of Africa?
Kinshasa is rich in Rumba-Rock music, a huge category of African music which can compete fairly well with Nigerian and West African music like the Senegalese music. Rumba-Rock stems from Cuban music imported to then Zaire long time ago. That brand of music has been transformed by the likes of Papa Wemba and some others. So it has a long history, just like Nigerian music which had its beginnings in what has been called ‘Palm wine music’. Rumba music has excellent in vocal harmony with guitar and percussion instruments. In Yoruba music, we have nice talking drums and beats. Each musical genre has its own character and attractiveness. It will be difficult to say one is better than the other; I enjoy both genres. Sometime ago many Congolese musicians left their country because of all the strife and fled abroad to France and Europe in very large number. Now, they are all coming back and they are very active in music. I saw many concerts and many live performances, and I enjoyed them very much.