Interviews March 9, 2023
Dogo du Togo Puts Togolese Music on the Map

Massama Dogo—A.K.A. Dogo du Togo—is a Togolese singer/songwriter/bandleader who has lived between the Washington D.C. area and his birthplace in Lomé, Togo since 2000. His latest project is a return to his roots, and an effort to put genuinely Togolese music on the map. Dogo du Togo’s debut album is a gem, eleven warm and inviting, mostly acoustic tracks with unique rhythms and beautiful melodies. Coming from a country we don’t hear from a lot, the album is a welcome surprise. Afropop’s Banning Eyre reached Massama Dogo over Zoom to talk about his career and the project. Here’s their conversation.

Opening image by Jeff Assou.

Banning Eyre: Massama, it’s good to see you.

Massama Dogo: Good to see you too. It’s been a long time. Last time I saw you was in New York at Joe's Pub. We jammed together.

We did?

Yeah, you came on stage. That was around 2012, 2011.

Oh my. I barely remember. I think my friend Michael Shereikis invited me. Man, that has been awhile. Well, thank you for making the connection. I’ve just been watching your videos and listening to the album again. I really enjoy it. But let's start in the beginning. Tell us a bit of your story.

I was born in Lomé, the capital city of Togo. In my family, nobody was a musician. So basically when I started being interested in playing the guitar, it was tough. My dad didn't want me to play. I had some friends that were playing and they would teach me how to play the chords and stuff. That's basically how it started. Then I joined some bands in the capital city and then when I got to the university, I joined a band and they voted me as the leader of the band. So that's where I learned to really be a band leader.

So this is in Lomé. Around what year?

I was born in 1972, so this is when I was a teenager. I came here to the U.S. around 2000. I started playing with some bands, some reggae bands and then I started Elikeh. In Elikeh, we mixed some Togolese music with rock and funk, a little jazz. It was really mixed up. It was not really specifically Togolese.

What does Elikeh mean?

It means “roots.” We put out three albums and one EP. But I was thinking I would like to really get back and play music that is closer to Togolese culture. So I thought about starting something with my friends back in Lomé, and that's how I started Dogo du Togo.

Photo by Jeff Assou
Photo by Jeff Assou

So this is the first album of Dogo du Togo?

Yes. This is the first album.

All recorded in Lomé?

Most of the stuff was recorded there. There are some guitar tracks that were recorded here on one or two songs. But most of it was basically in Lomé.

So this band is made up of musicians you knew from the past.

Yes. The guitarist was actually my teacher. The lead guitarist.

Yes. He's very good. I've never been to Togo. I lived in Mali, and my guitar teacher used to go to Lomé a lot. He loved it. But it's such an interesting country because it's this sliver of West Africa going north or south. There must be a lot of different styles of music there.

Yes. If you take all the songs from this album and all the rhythms they use, you find them everywhere else. You find them in Benin, and in Ghana, so basically the music is not music from a specific country. It's from the people. The borborbor for example, it's for the Ewe people that you find in Ghana, in Togo, in Benin, in Nigeria. Agbadja, you find that everywhere else too. If there were no countries, you would say these are music from the Ewe people or the Kabye or the Mobas. But now that there are countries it's like, O.K., this music is played in Togo and Ghana, but basically that's not what it is.

Is there a song on the album that's an example of the Ewe borborbor rhythm?

Yes. “Soke Wo.” That's a typical borborbor.

You made a nice video for that one. Tell me about the song.

That song is talking about forgiveness. It's time to forgive. I know that, yes, it's hard to forget when things happen or when some people do things to you, but it is possible to forgive. You want to forgive so you don't have it in your mind too much. Because if you have it in your mind, you won't be able to do anything. You are just stuck with it. So that's what the words are about. Basically, I was just playing my guitar and I was thinking about that and I was just, “This seems like a good borborbor. O.K. let me record it right away and see what's going on,” and then that's how this song came about.

Are there any songs that draw from the more northern traditions?

Yes. Simpa from the Sokodé region. The song is “Von na Agbeto” on the album. There’s also simpa in Ghana, but that is from the northern part of Togo.

We don't know too many bands from Togo. We are big fans of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo from Benin back in the day. Was that band big when you were young?

Yes. They were big when I was young, but those bands were playing mainly highlife and Afrobeat and Afro funk. If you listen to them today you can tell they were into the influences of the time. That's basically what was going on with those guys. There's a guy called Dama Damawuzan. He's the guy we listened to: he does traditional music but also he focuses on the real funk stuff, the James Brown scream. He was into that. There were other bands like Les As du Golf that would play basically highlife. That was in the ‘70s, but around the ‘80s, you see them playing a lot of soukous. Because that was the thing at the time.

Yes, that was the heyday of the Congolese invasion.

Exactly. So that was what we heard when we were young. But I don't know any band really developing a Togolese feel and sound. I didn't know of any. But I'll look around let you know if I find one.

Well, that's interesting. Maybe that's why we haven't heard of so many bands from Togo. I've been working on a project about funk music in Africa, and you guys were right in the crosshairs, in the “funk belt” as we say.

Yeah. Who was that guy in Sierra Leone?

Giraldo Pino.

Yes. People forgot about him. See? I even forgot his name.

You have a lot of different elements in your sound. You've mentioned some of the traditional influences. In a video I watched about you, you talk about Voodoo. How does that show up in your work, either spiritually or musically.

II'm not really familiar with the spiritual side, but I'm very familiar with the cultural side, the artistic style of it, especially the musical part. The cultural part of it is how we talk, how we eat, how we dress. But the initiation part, I don't really know about that. I was told that in order to sing some Voodoo songs I need some kind of initiation first. I'm going to go to Togo and do that so I can play those songs.

Fascinating. So that's part of your future plan.

Yes. I'm going to Togo in April. I go there all the time. I live between the U.S. and Togo now. But I need some kind of initiation to play those Voodoo songs. So right now I'm familiar with what we all know in Togo. I'm going take my guitar and show you a little bit, since you are a guitarist. We have two types of Voodoo music. We have one type called Ewe. It's a pentatonic scale, but if you don't know how to play it it's just gonna sound like a guy playing a pentatonic scale. It might sound like Malian music. You have to have the rhythm and the percussive way to play it. [Demonstrates] But if you just play any old way, that's not it.

It's got to be in the language, in the vernacular, as it were.

The language. Yes. That's exactly it. The song that uses that rhythm is “Obligation” on the record.

O.K. I noticed that’s one of just two songs with a 12/8 feel.

Yes, that's from the Ewe. That's that one. So the other one we call mina. It sounds a little bit closer to Ethiopian music, or at least one kind of Ethiopian music. [Demonstrates on guitar in the scale: G Ab Bb D Eb].

I hear that. It's a different scale. Is there a song that uses that sound on the album as well?

Yes, “Africa.” So that’s the style. But you have to know how to play it on the guitar. You have to play certain riffs to sound the way the music should. The second one, the mina, if you don't know how to play it, it might sound like Ethiopian music. To be real mina, you've got to do the tapping and play in a particularly percussive way.

You have to pluck every note. No hammer-ons or pull-offs.

Right. No bending and sliding or anything like that.

Every note has to be rhythmic and clear.

Exactly. You can hear that on “Africa.”

Talk about how you made this album. It's beautifully recorded. Did you write the songs first and then take them down there? Or did you create songs there?

I basically write the songs on my guitar first. Then I call the guys and we sit together. “Here is the song. This is my idea. We should play this and that.“ And then they come with their ideas. But the thing I really want is to make sure that the instrumentation and the arrangement don't overpower the heart of the song. I don't want to take away the authenticity of the songs. That's the risk. I want to make sure it's authentic enough, and natural enough. So we don't use many effects on the guitars and voices. We try to keep them natural, and calm.

I hear that.

One thing I like to say is that if somebody has never been to Togo, listening to this album, I want them to feel like they’ve been to Togo.

That's a good goal.

If you’ve been to Lagos, or you've been to Kinshasa, those places are crazy.

I know what you mean. I have been to both of them.

Our capital city Lomé is more calm. So imagine, if you go to those other cities, it's different. I really wanted this album to reflect the feel of the country. Of course when you play live, it's a different ball game.

Yes, I watched a live version of the song “Nyé Dzi,” and your guitar player was really rocking out.

Exactly. So the experience is different. Live, we can still represent the album as it is, but we can also go to other places. I was talking to you about how all the bands in the past were imitating what was coming out at the time. I really didn't want this album to be that.

I get that. Let's talk about the messages in some of the songs. Let's start with “Obligation.”

“Obligation” is based on a rhythm called gazo. It was a war rhythm at the time; now it's just played as a recreational rhythm. This song is talking about how people have to be united. To be able to develop the country. You know, we have over 44 languages in Togo.

Really? Forty-four languages. I guess that's because of that unusual geography, north to south.

Yes. That's it. So we have to be united with eight million people and 44 languages. That's what this song is talking about.

Let's talk about “Adze Adze,” the one where you call out Patrice Lumumba.

“Adze Adze” is talking about how Africans need to do what they can to be independent, to be not just independent on paper, but to be truly independent. We have to make sure that things that happened in the past, we can't let it happen anymore. The killing of Lumumba, Sankara, all those guys—we have to make sure that doesn't happen again. The way that's not gonna happen is for us to say, “No.” And to express that “no,” to really take control and be independent. So this is a message to Africans to say that our independence will depend on us.

That's a great message. On the song “Flowers,” I hear a bit of clave, a little bit of a taste of highlife.

Yes. “Flowers.”You'll see in Togo when you see a lady and you want to marry that lady, you will send your parents, or you can go with them, to the house of that lady, and they're going to say something like, “We were walking by your house. We saw a very beautiful girl in your house, and we came to see if you can give us that girl. We will take her home. We will take care of her so much. It's going to be so great.” So basically that's “Flowers.” I was asked one day to go with a cousin of mine to go ask about a lady. So I didn't know what to say, but I came up with something. He told me, “Wow, this is a really good poem.” So I turned that into a song. That's how the “Flowers” came about. I just put those words into a song.

In the song “Immigré,” the message is pretty clear. You’re a man from two places.

Yes. I am from two places. When I'm in Togo, I am where I was born, but at the same time, some people call me a toubab. So somehow even though I'm from Togo, I’ve become a little bit of a foreigner.

That's like that idea of Americana in Nigeria. That was the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous book.

Same idea. So then when I'm in the U.S., I have the papers, I vote, I pay my taxes, but sometimes someone looks at me like, “Dude, you're not from here, man.” So basically the song is saying, “Yes, we are immigrants and we're from two worlds. At the same time we're always a little bit of a foreigner. We don't really belong.” That's basically what it's about, but I'm not saying it's really a negative thing.

It's a challenge, but I think it has certain advantages.

Exactly. It can be an advantage. To have different cultures, to belong to two worlds. I think it's a great thing. But I just wanted to point out that a lot of my friends, a lot of people, live every day with this.

So you're kind of embracing that reality in the song.

Yes. Exactly.

Going back to your biography, how did you first come to the United States?

The idea was to come and study. I did some of that, but I didn't finish, and then I decided to focus on art and culture and stuff. I stayed. I didn't go back for a while. I did some of my studies, but I didn't really finish. I decided to focus on music.

These days, can you support yourself with music? Or do you have a day job?

I think music does half of it, not 100 percent. So I have to work during the day.

What do you do?

I'm a courier and a dispatcher. I dispatch couriers.

Let me ask you one more thing about the song “Soke Wo.” You told me it’s in the borborbor rhythm, but I hear something of that song that makes me think of Cape Verde. There's a little bit of a Lusophone vibe in there. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, I know. That's not the first time I've heard that. But I didn't really think about that. That was not my idea. But people say that. You're not the first one. I was just doing the borborbor, and that's what came out.

Well, it's a sweet sound. Tell me about any of the other songs you might want to mention in terms of their messages.

“Africa” is about immigration. It's based on the mina rhythm, as we said, and it's talking about people living leaving the continent to go to the West because the leaders are not really doing their job developing the country. That's why people are leaving, and some might never come back. They will leave for good.

Then “Zonva” is a song that I wrote for my son when he was born. Saying that I will love you and all those things that a father says all the time. But the most important thing is I would love to be for him the dad I did not have.

You didn't have a dad?

I do have a dad, but what I would like to have gotten from my dad, I didn't get it—the love, the emotional support and all that stuff.

Right. He didn't want you to play music.

Exactly. And other things too. I want to be there for my son. So basically that's what that song is saying. “I will be there for you. You can always count on me. I will love you.”

How old is your son now?

Nine. And when I tell him this song is for you, he will be like, “What does it say?” “It says I love you.” “Oh. Thank you.”

Photo by Jeff Assou
Photo by Jeff Assou

Good for him. Tell me about your guitarist. He is very impressive. You say he is the one who taught you?

Yes. I had started learning a little bit before I met him. I was interviewed on Togolese national TV and I said that for me he is the number one guitarist in Togo. He is amazing. So he teaches now at the British School of Lomé, teaching music, guitar. His name is Serge Kodjovi, but he decided that we needed to call him Oya Yao. Serge is someone who can explain very well everything about guitar. He can play many different styles. You talk about rock 'n' roll, he's there. You talked about jazz, he's there. He's such a great musician. He plays a lot with a guy called Jimi Hope in Togo. Jimi has passed away now, but he was one of the top rock 'n' rollers in the country. Serge played with a lot of different bands in Togo. Him being in this project was a big plus, because he understands the traditional things. Any kind of style we want to add on guitar, he will do it. You want to add country to it, he's up for it. Anything you want. He's so good. I'm so grateful to have him in this project.

I imagine you'd love to bring this band here to perform in the U.S., but that's probably very difficult. What are you thinking about that?

I know it's difficult to do. The goal we have is to find a way to start here or in Europe. That's the goal. People are looking into it, but it might be a dream. It’s so expensive. The air flights are like $1600 now. But that's what we're working on. We're talking to some people to see if something can happen in Europe. We believe with this music, we can bring something new to the world.

Well, you’ve made a very strong record. It's unique. As soon as I heard it I thought I felt that it was different.

Hearing that from you is really great. I wanted it to be different than Elikeh. Eklikeh, you come to play whatever you want to play. It's African, but all the influences come in. The bass player on this album his name is Tsikwol. He brings his own bass style. I don’t know if you noticed on that live video. Listen to the bass. He such a great player, and the percussion player is also great. Most of those guys are artists in their own right. The percussion player has his own albums out, for a long time. His name is a Ogrini. I believe I put together some of the best musicians in Togo, and they really believe in this project because they all really wanted to get something Togolese going. Yes, the influences of Afrobeat and highlife are good, and some of the rhythms here still have that feel of highlife, but we're not going to do specifically highlife. We just want to make sure we've got good Togolese sounds.

It's important. Do you still have a group you play with in the U.S.?

Elikeh. Dogo du Togo is not here. So I have two bands. Elikeh is the multiracial band bringing in different influences, and based here since 2010.

Is Michael Shereikis still in the band?

Michael was one of the founding members, but then he quit.

He quit?

Yeah, and I kept going. But with Dogo du Togo I'm trying to do something with the guys in Togo.

One more question for you, out of curiosity. I know a lot of African musicians here in New York who go back home to Africa from time to time. And this is a big theme of a lot of songs these days from artists we cover. The message is warning people not to have big dreams about going to Europe and America, because they may have illusions about how easy it is and how great it is. Do you have those conversations with people when you go back home? Do you have to kind of talk them down and tell them it's not as great out there as they might think?

Of course. All the time. Even when we did the record. When we practice, when we play, my musicians they have that in mind. And I say, “Hey we're going to try, but dude, that doesn't mean it's going to happen. It's not easy.” We need to try, but we can't be like, “O.K., our albums are getting released, people are writing about it, so that means we're going to go to Europe and America.” No. It's not that. It's not certain. Yeah, I try to tell them they have to calm down, because they could have a big dream and if it doesn't happen quick, they'll be very disappointed. So yes. I do that. And then with my cousins, my friends, I say, “Yes, come to America. But that doesn't mean it's going to be O.K. You need to do it the right way, you need to be legal. If not, you're going to be in trouble.” I talk about that all the time.

Yes. My African friends tell me that when they go home they have to have that conversation. I guess it comes with the territory. Well, I hope you have a great trip back there in April. Will you do some gigs there?

Yes we’ll do a few gigs. We've done some already, but we are planning to do more. Maybe at the Alliance Francais, and not just in Togo, throughout the region. We'll see what happens. I don't want to talk too much about that, especially about touring in Europe or the U.S..

Right. Alliance Francais is good place to start. They do great stuff all over Africa.

So that's what we'll be doing. But playing with those guys is just a different experience. To go back and see them and be together, it's a great feeling.

Well, enjoy every minute. And I look forward to meeting again soon. Travel safely.

Thank you.

#dogodutogo #togomusic #elikeh #massamadogo #voodoo #ewe #michaelshireikis #banningeyre

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