Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Latyr Sy (Senegal)
(He’s been in Japan since ’93)
We’re bringing the interview with Latyr Sy, a great percussion player from Senegal. He performed in Nelson Mandela Concert, 2002 World Cup Soccer and welcome ceremonies of President Mitterrand and other VIP. Also Latyr played African drums with Japanese traditional entertainment performances.
We hope you could learn his unique point of view on Japan, which has been cultivated by his philosophy of life and music.
Born on a slave island
I have my own website called “latyrsydiaspora.com” (His current website; https://latyrsy.com/en/).
“Diaspora” represents where I’m from called Goree Island. That used to be a slave island. Black people in the U.S., black people in Brazil, black people in Cuba. They used to be where I was born. That island is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Their fathers, mothers and kids were taken somewhere and sold. That’s why I put the word “Diaspora” on the name of website. It means “Freedom”.
I was born on a slave island and I’m proud of that very much. And I want people to know about our history.
“It’s hot in Tokyo!”
I was invited to Japan for vacation or sightseeing. Actually it doesn’t mean that I wanted to come to Japan. I had been in Japan for three months and went back to Senegal. And then I came back here to live in.
When I arrived in Tokyo, I felt Tokyo was too big, too heavy, and I was tired too much. It was my first trip outside of Senegal. I got on board an airplane for the first time. I had never travelled to such a far place before. And I didn’t have any idea about Japan.
So it was very shocking. Big buildings, cars and people. Moreover it was hot, 35C (95F). Roads were steaming. It’s hot in Senegal but it’s not hot like in Japan. Japan is kind of humid. In senegal, there’s a wind around you. It’s kind of cool. You can go swimming.
In Tokyo, there’s no sea resort nearby. I lived on a small island called Goree. I know about swimming and fishing. I was not expecting Tokyo to be the place like where I’m from.
I thought of going back to Senegal many times
Climate is different, food is different, language is different. And at the time I came to Japan, people were not used to black person.
I couldn’t speak Japanese but only a few Japanese people could speak English back then.
Japanese people are so shy. Even when I ask them the way to the station, some people say they don’t know. I remember that some people saw me and said, “Oh, you’re scaring me!” when I was walking on the street.
Actually as a percussion player from Senegal, I was the first one who came to Japan and started to live here. So it was very, very hard for me. I couldn’t speak even my language to anyone. I needed to call Senegal to speak my language. I was thinking of going back to Senegal many times because it was too much for me. No friends were around me.
Meeting with traditional entertainers
After I left Japan to Senegal and came back here again, I felt relaxed. When I went back to Senegal I started feeling that I wanted to go back to Japan. So I came back. I got used to Japanese food. That was the reason why.
I used to be very shy. I didn’t talk to people. I was always by myself. But I got used to talking to people. I got used to saying what I was thinking, too.
It affected even my music. I could play drums without feeling any stress or any pressure. Everything was going very slowly but was changing step by step.
When I came to Japan, I had an opportunity to meet the person who invited me to Japan. He gave me a chance to introduce myself to noh players and Japanese traditional dancers. I went to the historical places and saw their performances.
“I have to be here”
Every time I went to those places, I couldn’t see any young people, my generation. So I really appreciated being in those places, being with those old people, having dinners and parties with them. They taught me a lot of Japanese words and phrases. I think I had to be here at that time. Not the United States or France or somewhere else because I passed all those countries to come here, I think I came here for a good reason.
I came here to show my culture to Japanese people. And to teach them about Africa.
Drumming is not fashion
Drumming is not fashion because I saw all people were playing drums when I was born and they have been doing it. Thanks to that, I can go to many places in the world right now with my music.
I hope it would get more and more groovy, much better. I like to create because this world needs creation for the next generation. To create something, you need the basic. It means your “roots”. You need to keep tradition first and then you can create something new. You would be able to move people’s feeling.
Young Japanese are interested in modern things like American style or European style. Where I am from is a very historical place so I was shocked by that very much.
Now people come and play drums but they have to know what’s inside of drumming. They have to know because drumming has been for communication for many years. We are not playing drums just for fashion. We love playing drums from the bottom of our hearts. Japanese people also have to be conscious about that.
Nothing is impossible
Japanese traditional music has really deep, sensitive and meaningful parts. Like the sound of shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, the vocality of noh, Kabuki and Japanese way of dancing. Everything has meaning. It’s the same as in Africa. If you go there, you can feel their own rhythms. But I know Japanese rhythm and them come together because I have been in Japan for a long time.
On the other hand, how can Senegal and Japan come together? To realize that, we need to feel and understand each other.
Usually you think how African drums and Japanese noh could fit together. But if you try it, you can do it. Nothing is impossible.
Playing tsuzumi (a kind of Japanese drum) with Djembe together is not strange. But in Japanese society, traditional culture tends to throw up high walls. We need to change minds for their future for kids.
Try first. Don’t hesitate to ask
Feel something from your body. Let your head move or let your feet move. That’s the way I teach my students.
However, there is a difficult part. Even though I teach them to clap their hands, Japanese people do that because everybody claps his/her hands at the same time. “Everybody go this way so we also go this way.” That’s the most difficult part.
“You have your idea so you have your spice. I have my idea so I have my spice. If you mix this and that, it will taste good.” They should try like that, but they don’t.
Also they don’t ask me. Instead, they ask each other. When I teach them, I think they should ask me. They hesitate too much. “Why don’t you ask me? Why is there a teacher and why are there students?” That makes me very nervous.
We are all the same human beings
When I came here for the first time, I was thinking too much about Japan. But now I don’t. Now I start enjoying the life here. Now I know what to do and how to enjoy myself.
What people feel in Africa, what other people feel in other countries… they are all the same. We are all the same people, human beings. So you need heart, a big heart. If you have a big heart, people will love you wherever you go. I think that’s what helps me in Japan.
I’ve been feeling Japanese rhythms around me
In noh, it has unique rhythm called “Sambaso”. You can mix that rhythm and our rhythm. It’s imagination. What you feel from that person. How you feel the sound coming towards you. You must feel so many things.
Some people might be thinking I’m like Japanese. Actually some people say that I have became Japanese. But I don’t believe so. What I know is I have been feeling my surroundings. I have been feeling Japanese rhythms around me. I want to use my African traditional rhythms to express what I feel.
I want to transmit African culture from Japan to the world
I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. But I wish, and I hope that the relationship between Japan and my country gets much better. I hope people would help each other and feel each other. What I am doing is music. And music is “feeling”. It’s not fighting for no reason or killing for no reason.
I think I came to Japan because I had a mission. Why me? It could be somebody else. My family didn’t want me to go to Japan. They said, “You’re going to a place where you don’t know anyone and far.” Nobody knew about Japan.
Maybe It’s my duty. I had to be away from my family and my friends. I left everything to come here for that reason, representing Senegal. I believe that all musicians from other countries are ambassadors. We all represent our countries.
I am really working for African things in Japan. It’s possible. I want to make a big start from Japan and transmit it all over the world. That’s my dream.
*Photos by Masa Takemori
What is Tokyo is to you?
Tokyo is where everything started outside of my country. It’s a great place to meet people. It’s a great place for my music, and for my mission!
His website: https://latyrsy.com/en/
His class (Ikebukuro)