Taking Islands in Africa

‘a masterclass in synth programming’

In March 1980 Japan headed for the country of their band-name, embarking on a tour to support the Quiet Life album. Mick Karn later recalled how their travel was, ‘more often than not, by Shinkansen, the luxuriously smooth bullet train.. ..It was on one such journey I heard a cassette that was being circulated amongst the band, on my Walkman, the latest invention from Sony. Electronic music was the future, Kraftwerk were already a favourite, but there was something different about this band. YMO were the perfect accompaniment to the speeding scenery outside, it was one of those moments when music and visuals became one, quite by accident, and somehow captured the very spirit of Japan. We couldn’t believe that no-one had heard of them abroad.’ (2009)

It was during the same trip to Japan that the band first met Ryuichi Sakamoto, keyboard player with Yellow Magic Orchestra and in this context, interviewer of David Sylvian for Music Life magazine. Little did either party know that this would be the start of a friendship and musical partnership that would span decades to come. At the time of writing this article, ‘Life, Life’ from Sakamoto’s 2017 album Async features one of Sylvian’s most recently released performances, well over 35 years later.

DS RS first meeting
David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto first meeting in 1980; from Music Life photo story book, 1982, photographer uncredited

The track ‘Riot in Lagos’ from Ryuichi’s album B-2 Unit was recorded in 1980 by Sakamoto with Dennis Bovell at the latter’s then new studio in Southwark, London – Studio 80. The Barbados-born reggae guitarist and dub producer recently recounted the experience: ‘I was a Yellow Magic Orchestra fan so I knew who I was dealing with and what the possibilities were.. ..He turned up with an instrument called a Prophet 10, which was brand new and a double manual Prophet 5 keyboard. I’d only ever seen a Prophet 5. Then he said, “right, record.”

‘I recorded a drum track that he wanted. He said, “right, play that back.” As I played back something he’d be jotting on his manuscript paper and then he’d say, “Roll!” and he recorded that whole piece. Then I proceeded to cut it up and dub it and he was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want..” ..that hadn’t been done until then as far as I know. And that track caused quite a stir.. ..We did it in a few hours.

‘Ryuichi was very quick and he knew what he wanted to do. He’d hear notes in his head, get the manuscript, write it down and then play what he heard in his head. Most people have an idea and sort of tap it out, but being able to write music he could transfer his thoughts into notes, and he did. It was a great exercise in how to compose instantaneously, which is something I am very fond of doing, so watching him do it just confirmed my thoughts that it’s a great thing to do.’ (2019)

That same year when Japan entered London’s Air Studios to record an album for their new record label, Virgin, sessions for B-2 Unit were co-incidentally taking place in an adjoining studio. Sakamoto’s engineer was now a certain Steve Nye, who would also play a major role in the musical lives of Japan and David Sylvian in the years to come. It was perhaps inevitable then that conversations about music between Sakamoto and Sylvian should move on to a collaboration.

RS SN
Steve Nye & Ryuichi Sakamoto, sessions for B-2 Unit at Air Studios, London; photo by Yoshitaka Goto from Ryuichi Sakamoto Year Book 1980-1984

The fast execution and focus that Dennis Bovell described were much in evidence when Sakamoto joined the band in their studio to work on a track. Mick Karn put it like this: ‘Ryuichi is a professor of music and could turn the pages of his sheet music, smoke, doodle, dial real phone numbers, juggle, prepare and eat lunch with one hand, while recording the keyboard parts to ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ with the other. Amazing to watch him in action, and we thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment..’ (2009).

Sylvian remembered the experience with similar admiration. ‘I vividly recall Ryuichi joining our session late one evening in Studio One of George Martin’s Air Studios. He brought with him a Prophet 5 synthesiser, and proceeded to lay down track after track after track until the entire piece was more or less completed. It was a bravado performance.. ..Beautiful!

‘I took the track home with me that evening, returning next morning with lyric and melody completed. By the time Ryuichi appeared at the studio later that day (he was recording B-2 Unit in Studio Three), the track was finished.’ (2002)

From the dull attack of the opening notes announcing ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ as the final song on Gentlemen Take Polaroids, there are so many different aspects of the synthesised sounds to enjoy. Each distinct keyboard voicing adds to the vibrancy and atmosphere of the piece. It never seems crowded, with each sound complementing the others in the mix. Listening so many years on it still seems unique and fresh, which is truly remarkable considering how early in the ’80s this was created and how so many synthesised sounds from the first part of that decade sound brash and unsophisticated to today’s ears. The deepest bass part alternates slowly from one note to another like the paddle of a boat, first at one side of the vessel and then at the other, propelling us forward along some African river. Percussion beats come in wide on the right channel with a quick response from the left, the pattern then being reversed. There’s a beautiful continuing high-pitched melody, with a mid-range synth sound used for a solo in an instrumental passage. Extended high notes are twisted and manipulated but remain bright and inviting. As the lyrics give way to backing vocals, we hear a keyboard effect akin to a lead guitar solo which recurs at the next refrain of ‘outside there’s a world waiting..’

I just love picking one of the sounds and following that part through the entire piece. It’s all constructed so masterfully. In the end it comes down to heavily-reverbed electronic percussion strikes as Sylvian delivers the final words.. ..‘the wind blows hard into my sails.’

The lyric Sylvian wrote that night is effective in creating vivid images in our mind, using a strong sense of place rooted in the song’s title (a striking phrase from the words of the already-penned song ‘Swing’):

‘Taking islands in Africa
Watch the slow boat hit and run’

Each picture is an opportunity to portray something of the inner life, with descriptions of the physical environment providing a window to human emotion:

‘Every day the sun beats down
I pull away from shore
The wind blows hard into my sails
Now I know I’m out of touch
And times they could get tough
But I move on so how can I fail?’

There’s no doubt that at this stage in Sylvian’s songwriting, meaning is only hinted at and there is much room for interpretation; but that’s not such a weakness when there is just enough clarity for the listener to find their own significance in the words. For me, this song speaks of a determined spirit of going out into the ‘world waiting’ and to ‘take it all by storm’. Keep moving forward – who knows what awaits but:

‘When the evening fires burn
Daylight dead and gone
With you beside me we can run.’

The track credits tell us that Ryuichi Sakamoto plays keyboards and keyboard percussion with David Sylvian contributing vocals and additional keyboards. There is no appearance from either Rob Dean or Mick Karn on the piece with Richard Barbieri contributing synthesised bass. Steve Jansen is credited with African drums, percussion and additional keyboard percussion, but his recollection is of a peripheral involvement: ‘I believe I played real hi-hat and possibly other percussion on ‘Taking Islands..’ but Ryuichi Sakamoto pretty much constructed the entire thing on the Pro-5, and the man has great timing so it was like having the day off.’ (2018)

According to Mick Karn, the limited involvement of the wider band ‘presented us with a set of problems. Much as I respect Ryuichi and hold him dear as a warm friend, the track, being a collaboration between Dave and Ryuichi, had little to do with the musicians in Japan (the band), and mismatched the rest of the album..’ (2009). Having grown to know Gentlemen Take Polaroids as a whole, I’ve never seen the track as in any way incongruous to the rest of the album from a listener’s perspective, embracing as it does styles as different as ‘Methods of Dance’ and ‘Nightporter’. But Mick wasn’t alone in the thought; in 1981 Ryuichi himself told Sylvian, ‘when I heard ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ on the record, it sounded very different from the rest of the material, rather unlike Japan..’

Sakamoto continued, however, ‘..yesterday in concert it seemed to have been absorbed quite naturally into the repertoire, and was very fresh. I really liked it.’ Recordings from that tour bear witness to sweeping keyboard lines from Richard Barbieri and a driving but repetitive live drum part from Steve Jansen, which again accompanies Sylvian’s vocal in the stripped back ending. There is also a recognisably “Mick” bassline; maybe it’s the unsophisticated nature of the recordings, but this sounds a bit incongruous to these ears, so used to hearing the deep and understated bass of the original.

Steve Jansen recently went so far as to categorise the song as Japan’s ‘most regrettable track. ‘Taking Islands..’,’ he said, ‘should have been on a Sakamoto album.’ (2018)

Whatever the rights and wrongs of whether it belongs on ..Polaroids, ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ is an exquisite piece of highly original synthesiser-driven pop music. Distinct, peculiar sounds working together with exotic lyrics to concoct a vivid atmosphere in melody and imagination. Returning to these Japan albums is an absolute joy; there is great sophistication and creativity in the songs which certainly stand the test of time.

b-2 unit

At the time of release, an interviewer remarked to David Sylvian that despite ‘Taking Islands..’ being composed with Sakamoto, there was no real Japanese influence in the song. Sylvian conceded that, ‘it doesn’t have it, does it?’, but interestingly added, ‘I think the music reflects lots of Ryuichi’s characteristics, so some people might find it Japanese.’ The cross-fertilisation of eastern and western musical styles is a fascinating hallmark of Sakamoto’s work, pulling in influences from across the globe. The discussion on ethnic echoes continued with the interviewer commenting, ‘The title says, ‘Africa’, but it’s not even African is it?’ Sylvian: ‘Yes it is, I think. Just a little bit though. The rhythm or the African drums… we used those instruments in order to add a bit of African taste to the song. But it’s not obvious, it’s very subtle.’ (1980)

The very same things could be said about the B-2 Unit track that Ryuichi recorded with Dennis Bovell, ‘Riot in Lagos’, and on my playlist I like to play this alongside ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ and another B-2 Unit track, ‘E-3A’. The history of these pieces of music is so intertwined and they have their roots in the same visionary application of technology.

Interviewed for Anthony Reynolds’ book A Foreign Place, engineer Steve Nye explained what drew him into Sakamoto’s music: ‘Wall-to-wall synthesisers, drums, bass, rhythm parts, melodies, and most importantly, sumptuous atmospheres – the lot. I already liked the techno-pop of Kraftwerk, but this had more emotion to it. I fell head-first right into it. By 1980 we were finishing recording and mixing Sakamoto’s first solo album, B-2 Unit. What a delight! I became a huge fan. These new sounds enabled a whole new world to be created. I felt at home. This is what my training had been leading up to. But now what? Ryuichi went home to Japan and that was that.’

What next for Steve Nye? Taking the engineer and co-producer’s chair for Japan’s studio recordings the following year, for what was to become Tin Drum. These sessions would take the Prophet 5 and stretch its capabilities even further in the search of never-before-heard sounds. Despite being in such close proximity to the band at Air studios when he was working on B-2 Unit and they on Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Nye has no recollection of meeting Japan or being involved with the Sakamoto collaboration. However, for the b-side of the single ‘Visions of China’ that heralded Tin Drum‘s arrival he would remix ‘Taking Islands in Africa’, producing a shorter version with a drier, more stark arrangement. The Steve Nye remix version is well worth seeking out in addition to the original.

‘Taking Islands in Africa’

David Sylvian – vocals, additional keyboards; Ryuichi Sakamoto – keyboards, keyboard percussion; Richard Barbieri – bass synth; Steve Jansen – African drums, percussion, additional keyboard percussion.

Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced by John Punter. From Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Virgin, 1980.

lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing

Thank you to Paul Rymer for the photograph of Sylvian & Sakamoto in 1980 from his archive. The main image is an alternate shot from the cover art session for Gentlemen Take Polaroids.

Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

Download links: ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ (iTunes); ‘Riot in Lagos’ (iTunes); ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ (Steve Nye remix) (iTunes)

Physical media links: Gentlemen Take Polaroids (Amazon) (burningshed – single vinyl; double vinyl); B-2 Unit (Amazon)

‘Ryuichi was invited to record on Gentlemen Take Polaroids when in the UK. He constructed the basic track purely on a Prophet 5 synth, which was quite a masterclass in synth programming and sounded reminiscent of his inspiring solo album B-2 Unit. I’ve worked with Ryuichi on quite a number of recordings over the years since then, as well as for live and tv performances, and he is always a great pleasure to work with and the consummate professional.’ Steve Jansen, 2017

6 thoughts on “Taking Islands in Africa”

  1. Always uncomfortable with the lyric to this and how it imagines the upward mobility of the white working class male as dependent on the conquest and subjugation of the black body

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    1. If your interpretation involves the subjugation of people then I understand the discomfort. For me it speaks of moving beyond familiar territory and embracing the unfamiliar. I guess this is an issue when meaning is somewhat disguised and there is a good deal of room for interpretation.

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    2. How in the name of all that exists did you get that from a song so simply defined, it speaks to me as a person who seeks new adventures, new horizons and the need to explore. The need to bring race into such a simple pop song itself just creates barriers. If your interpretation Paul is so different to mine then it is a difficult world we do live in friend.

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  2. I don’t believe bringing race into the equation is unwarranted as the lyrics are not all vague but specifically refer to the invasion of African territory in a song that is a collaboration by two members of the colonial powers. In his book on post-punk RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN, Simon Reynolds discusses Japan in terms of the art rock dream – a predominantly white male suburban longing for an aristocratic existence based on a desire for beauty and perfection that has many discomforting right wing elements. The imagery here may be epic and rarefied but it is still based on the idea of violence and conquest with no recognition that the desire for expansion inevitably comes at a cost to others. Those “ghosts” would return at a later date, but they seem absent here.

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  3. For me it’s possible to identify with the metaphor of exploration and discovery in this lyric without the negative implications of conquest and tyranny. Yes, Africa is specifically mentioned, making the images of landscape more evocative. Sylvian’s lyrics at this stage were often based upon a series of images set before us like photographs. I think it’s more likely naive rather than anything disquietingly political. As I’ve said before I’ll never claim my understanding of these songs is in any sense the ‘right’ one; in many ways their strength is that each listener can identify with the lyrics for themselves. This comment just to articulate my perspective further.

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  4. Rob Dean, Japan’s guitarist, has provided some additional first-hand insight into the creation of ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ in an online discussion of this article:
    ‘..basically Ryuichi was invited into the studio, set up his synths in the control room and was left to create a track from scratch with us all sitting around watching, with no guidelines to work from whatsoever and no percussion or drum track either. Through the next several hours, (most of a full day really), he built up layer upon layer of parts, ditching some and replacing them with others. The first part recorded can be heard at the very start of the piece-the low off-tempo percussive ‘grunt’. It was fascinating watching the master work, as i’m sure you can imagine.’

    To what extent were the band using the Prophet 5 before the session with Ryuichi?
    ‘It was already heavily being used in the GTP sessions at this point.’

    ‘Rich’s contribution, (if my memory is correct), was the short melodic instrumental break at 2.26.’

    Did the band know that Ryuichi had the capability to build a piece so quickly given their limited working knowledge of each other as musicians at this point?
    ‘I don’t think we had any doubt about Ryuichi’s abilities. At that point, being huge fans, he could have been there a whole week and we’d still have been patiently sitting around and listening, waiting for the magic to happen.’
    with my thanks to Robert Dean, May 2019

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