there are just too many records available in Tokyo! But not enough African records, at least not for Iain Lambert who was so kind to guide me through my recent trip of the Japanese metropolis.
Collector friend MP Flapp had introduced us and after a few wee malts the music of Africa became the topic, as Iain loves African music as well and is an avid record collector but most of all, the man’s got a vision too.
Next to his regular work as an English teacher he organises One Box Record Fair in Tokyo, a small-scale event for invited sellers to buy/sell/trade records in all genres. The most remarkable aspect of the fair is the fact that sellers and traders are allowed to bring one box only (!). Now that requires a hefty task for sellers to select only 1 box! Expect deep diggin’ and ultra specialized stuff in most genres. The first fair coming up will be held on Saturday June 30th 2012 at Bar Dynamo Tokyo.
Our conversation about local record shops took an unexpected turn when I mentioned Fela Kuti’s ‘pidgin English’ . Little did I realize that Iain was well familiar with the subject. Reason enough to interview the man for Soul Safari. Thanks also for his translation of the interview with Takashi Harada-san, owner and label-manager of El Sur.
See more ‘pidgin’ English’ Fela Kuti -the black President -Yellow Fever -Decca Afrodisia 1976
1. Please introduce yourself in a few sentences.
I’ve been buying records for over 30 years – the last 20 of them in Japan – and the more I hear, and the more people I meet, the more I realise I’m still just scratching the surface of what’s out there. It’s a great feeling! Now I co-run the One Box Record Fair event in Tokyo: a small-scale event for individuals to buy and sell records in all styles & genres. We’re into our second year and enjoying it immensely.
2. Do you see yourself as a dj/collector/trader or cultural anthropologist?
I’m undeniably a collector, though I get as much, if not more, pleasure from playing stuff to other people as I do from the process of acquiring records. I love to trade, and find out about a lot of good things that way. A friend once said to me that he saw himself as a “custodian” of his records … someone owned most of them before him, and someone else will have them when he dies, so his job is just to look after them and play them with love while he has them. I like that idea.
3. Do you choose traditional tribal music or contemporary popular music from Africa?
Much of what I like is a kind of intersection between modern instruments and styles and traditional musics. I’m mainly drawn to popular music of the 50s-80s from Zaire/Congo, West Africa, Tanzania & Madagascar, and I also love South African Jazz and Kwela. I like particular instruments, such as the kora, balafon or valiha, and vocal stuff like the polyphonic singing from Cameroon.
4. What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?
Definitely the rhythms and the interplay between instruments, especially if you take the voice as being another instrument. The vocal harmonies of singers like Djo Mpoy, Carlito and Josky from Franco’s TPOK Jazz are among some of the most beautiful sounds ever committed to vinyl, but I can remember the first time I saw some of Franco’s lyrics translated, I think it was for the track La Vie des Hommes, I’d loved that track for years without understanding the Lingala, but once I knew what it was about it opened up a new level of enjoyment.
5.What was the biggest challenge for you to start collecting African music?
Probably overcoming my own stupid prejudices about it. The first time I heard African music was on the radio. A British DJ called Andy Kershaw had a show in the 1980s where he played a lot of guitar bands from Zimbabwe like The Bhundu Boys, and I didn’t really think it was anything special. However, after I moved to Edinburgh I met a guy who worked in a record shop there and he was the first to play me stuff like Fela Kuti or Franco. I remember going up to his flat with a bunch of other people as we were going to a football match that afternoon and seeing all these African masks on the walls and speakers in all four corners of the room. I don’t remember much about the game, but I can still remember the feeling I had when I heard the first notes of side one of Franco et le TPOK Jazz 20ieme Anniversaire. To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Of course then all I could do was ask him to tape me the album, as there was nowhere in Edinburgh that had anything like that. Then, when I came to Japan in 1991 I discovered shops like Wave in Tokyo and Rhythm Box in Kobe and started accumulating CDs and VHS tapes. I actually stopped buying vinyl when I first came over here as I only planned to stay for a year or two …
6. Please explain your interest in ¨pidgin` English?
As part of my day job I research non-standard varieties of English, and pidgins are one of the most fascinating examples of that. I’m especially interested in their use in literature as a way of marking an oppositional stance and have written about Nigerian pidgin and its use by authors like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chris Abani and Uzodinma Iweala, as well as musicians like Fela Kuti.
7. Please describe the Japanese fascination for African music. When did it start? Any live /shows? Favorites? DJ’s/Clubs/bands?
I think someone who lived here in the late 80s would be better qualified to answer that than I would. At that time there was a boom in “Afro Pop”, especially with Sunny Ade and Zairean groups like Papa Wemba & Viva la Musica or Zaiko Langa Langa being flown over to tour and record. The label Pili Pili put out a lot of great albums. Then the fashions changed and the next trend took over. When I was first here I lived in Nagoya so didn’t often get to Osaka and Tokyo, where all the best clubs were. You could (and still can) hear African music on the radio thanks to DJs like Peter Barakan or the Sunday night “World Music” show on NHK Radio.
8. Why is it important to save African music for the world?
It’s not just African music, there are many countries whose musical tradition is undervalued domestically as we move towards an increasingly digital and disposable age. I imagine that if I was growing up in a relatively cosmopolitan African city nowadays I’d have so much foreign music from all eras available through the internet that I’d almost naturally neglect my own in favour of something I saw as “exotic”. In the same way many Japanese people are dismissive of the Japanese rock bands that western collectors fawn over, saying “why would I listen to Flower Travellin’ Band when I could listen to the first Black Sabbath album”. I think it’s important to preserve the records especially, as each one carries its own history … be it a name scrawled in pen on the sleeve or a big nasty scratch where someone bumped into the turntable at a party, each scuff or mark tells us something about how they were used and who had them at one stage or another on their journey.
9. What is your best African record find ever?
Not valuable or rare records at all, but I often play these in my African sets: Vivita by Orchestre Veve, Kokoliko by Orchestre Kokoliko du Malawi, Nya na Fesa by Abeti, Namabele by Josky Kiambukuta. I remember finding Sensible by Bibi Den’s Tshibaye in a shop in Amsterdam a few years ago and needledropping the first few songs before the first bars of the title track grabbed me and I had the rush of adrenalin you get when you hear something so good. I think I stood at the listening station with the headphones on through the whole eight minutes literally weeping for joy at how good it was.
10. What is still on your wishlist?
In terms of African records, nothing really. So much great music has been reissued that I feel satisfied with what I’ve got and am happy to just find out things by chance. There are some SA Jazz bits I’d love to have, and some Franco records I need better copies of, but I’m not sweating over them.