Broadcasting Legend Georges Collinet Offers Wisdom

Cameroon-born Collinet began his radio career in the 1960s, introducing American soul singers like James Brown to African audiences. Collinet became a famed broadcaster in Africa and a top expert on African Pop music. He speaks with host Michel Martin about his upbringing, worldview, and why black Americans have been slow to embrace Afropop.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now, it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

Today, we are speaking with someone whose voice has reached millions of listeners around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

GEORGES COLLINET: Hello. Georges Collinet with you on AFROPOP WORLDWIDE. Well, it used to be that African musicians left the village to make their careers in the city. Today, the city comes to the village.

MARTIN: Georges Collinet is one of the best-known broadcasters in Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

COLLINET: On this program, we'll visit with Algerian rai star Khaled, as he unveils new music at the Olympia Theater in Paris.

MARTIN: He began his career as the host of "Bonjour, L'Afrique" or "Hello, Africa," a wildly popular program produced by Voice of America. He currently is the host of Public Radio International's AFROPOP WORLDWIDE, a program that highlights the music of Africa. And we have the honor of hosting him here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for coming.

COLLINET: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So how did you get bitten by the broadcasting bug?

COLLINET: I don't know. I came to America in 1960. And I was coming from school in France, and I didn't know that I had to work to make a living. So one day...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Which is a stereotype of the French. But we'll just...

COLLINET: Yes, yes. I mean, you know, foie gras and good wine and everything. What? Work? What do you mean? And then, finally, I said, ah. Maybe we should do something. I should do something about that. And a friend of mine said, hey, you know what? You missed so many exams - we flunked so many exams, I have an exam at the Voice of America. Would you like to come with me? And we will flunk another one. He flunked it. I made it. That's the story of my radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Isn't that interesting? What do you think it is about "Bonjour L'Afrique"? Really, I could walk down a street in many countries and say your name, and people would know it.

COLLINET: Yes. Well, it's enthusiasm. That's all. You need to be enthusiastic about what you're doing, and if you're not, well, forget it. My teacher, who was like my American mother, as a matter of fact, said, Georges, never forget to put a smile on your face when you speak. And you know what? It works. It's amazing.

MARTIN: Let's go back a bit and talk a little bit about your upbringing, that you were born in Cameroon.

COLLINET: Yes.

MARTIN: Your mother is Cameroonian, and your father was French. As you've described him, I've heard you describe him as, you know, a real Frenchman. He had to have his cheese, his wine and his silver.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: Yes.

MARTIN: And at some point, your father took you to France, right, for your education.

COLLINET: Yes. When I was seven-and-a-half.

MARTIN: You were seven-and-a-half.

COLLINET: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: How do you think that affected your outlook?

COLLINET: Well, you know, at the time, it was 1947. Don't tell anybody. But anyway - and, you know, in Cameroon...

MARTIN: Just after the war.

COLLINET: Yeah. Just after the war. The war had just ended. And in Cameroon, you didn't have any schools, really. And so my father said, well, I have to take my son to France, ah-ha. And - but the thing is, he had to fight with the elders of my tribe. I use the word tribe, too, you know. It's what I am from, the Bulu tribe. And he had to fight with these people, and they finally, after a year of discussion and bother, you know, they said, okay. Take him away, but bring him back to us with a good education and everything else. And that's how it started.

MARTIN: Did your parents stay with you in France, or did you - were you left in the care of your grandparents?

COLLINET: I was left in the care of my grandparents and relatives. Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, in many parts of the world, that's not unusual for children to be sent or for parents to leave for education for long periods of time. But it's still difficult.

COLLINET: It is very difficult, mostly in those days. A little black boy, you didn't have many of them around, so you know, people would look at me and they say, ooh, look at the little (unintelligible). And I would get really mad because, you know, what is wrong with these people? Because I lived in a small city in France where they had never seen a black person. And so when I arrived there, you know, it was kind of a commotion.

MARTIN: And then you came to the U.S. at the age of 20.

COLLINET: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, you know, an experience like that can often have one of two effects on a person. Sometimes it can make a person feel like an outsider everywhere, that you never fit in. And, sometimes, it can make a person feel that they belong everywhere. Do you have any sense of how this affected you and your outlook?

COLLINET: Well, you know, the thing is what was difficult for me, was the fact that you had discrimination. At the same time I loved America. I mean I still love America. I mean it's a fabulous country, it's open. I mean it's fantastic. And I had the privilege of starting my stay in America with a great person, which was Gordon Parks, who was a top photographer for Life/Time Magazine and all that, then the learning how to cope with the society - with the society that I didn't quite understand. Because, as I was saying, you know, I lived in France, I had a very good life in France, because my father took care of me very well.

But the thing is arriving here, people looking at you sometimes with not the way they looked at me in France the way they look at you in America. You could see darts, knives coming of these eyes, you know, (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Really I mean I don't where? Like in New York?

COLLINET: In New York.

MARTIN: In New York?

COLLINET: Yeah. Yeah. In the 60s - 1960s.

MARTIN: Everybody looks at every body like that in New York.

COLLINET: Yeah.

MARTIN: What he talking about?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's our way of saying hello. I'm from New York.

COLLINET: But the - and then after that I met some people, and then we came to Washington, and Washington at the time, ooh, my goodness. In 1965, ooh, it was the South and it was, it was rough. You know, I used to go to the Voice of America and let's say to the restroom, and I could still see the shadow of the sign saying For White and Colored - that was colored, not blacks. And I would, of course, to any one I wanted to and people would look at me. Mostly the black brothers, they would look at me say, are you going in there? Well, maybe you should go over there because that thing had stayed in their mind.

MARTIN: How do you think that that affected the way you translated the American experience into your broadcast? Because the whole point of Voice of America is to tell the American story. Right?

COLLINET: Yes. And...

MARTIN: And share American values.

COLLINET: But, you know, the thing is, I was so protected - it was amazing - by the people at the Voice of America, and by this lady that I called my mother, Terry DeRosa, my American mother. And also I thought that well, I was above all that. There are idiots and there are the other people - the great people. So I was part of the "great people," quote-unquote, and I didn't care about the idiots.

But what - but the question arose all the time, because my listeners in Africa, all these people there say you are in America, you're not dead yet? And I would say nah, not quite.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: And I intend to stay long for a long time here on, you know.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the internationally-known to Georges Collinet. He began his career as the host of Bonjour L'Afrique, a wildly popular program on Voice of America. And currently he's the host of Public Radio International's Afropop Worldwide.

How did you go about choosing the sounds, the artists to introduce to your audience?

COLLINET: Well, that - whatever struck my fancy, I would play. I thought that it was good for me to really feel the vibration of the music. And it was very funny because all the records that I liked, all the songs that I liked, were on 45 RPM. And 45 RPMs were race records. And I would give these records to my engineer, my sound engineer, and I would look at him, you know, picking them up like it was something dirty. And one day I said, what's wrong with you? Why – do you have a problem? Oh, my god, these things are, it's only Negros playing music. This is disgusting.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: And I said well, it's good music to, though, the rest of the world love it. You play it now - or else.

MARTIN: Like what? Was there anything in particular that you could remember that you...

COLLINET: Well, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, all these people. I mean, you know, Martha and the Shandells, I think - if I remember well - and all these records that were just exciting. I mean it was exciting music. And I had the same problem with the American embassies abroad, because they were saying - suddenly they listened to the Voice of America and to hear this wild music coming out...

MARTIN: And you're hearing say it out loud. I'm black and I'm proud.

COLLINET: Yes. Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: And things like that. And the guys are saying wow, what's going on? And at the time you remember that it was they were all WASP. I mean if you wanted to be in the Foreign Service you have to be white, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant and some blonde and all that, and suddenly there is this crap, as they said, that comes through the Voice of America's airwaves.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think they let it go on so long – it was popular?

COLLINET: Because suddenly we received 20,000 letters. And we received like what; let's say 100 cables from these embassies saying you stop that right now because it's against our American culture. And at the same time you have a balance of 20,000 letters from people who are spending a hundred francs - 100 francs in Africa at the time. You could eat for four-five days with that...

MARTIN: Spending 100 francs for what - to?

COLLINET: For postage.

MARTIN: For postage.

COLLINET: Postage. Yeah.

MARTIN: To tell you how great they loved it.

COLLINET: To tell me how great they love it, and how great America is, and how great this and that and this. People would send me something like 200-300 letters a month. It was crazy.

MARTIN: At one point though, you expressed concern that African musicians were abandoning their roots and...

COLLINET: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...their musical heritage - you felt - in favor of duplicating a more American sound.

COLLINET: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Yeah. Why do you say that?

COLLINET: Well, because, you know, I was telling my listeners - I used to tour Africa on goodwill tours for the United States for the - and of the Voice of America. And one of the things that they would do is have a concert for me to show off their style, their talent. And all of them were imitating James Brown. And I was saying man, what have I done?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: What have I done? I just destroyed my own continent.

MARTIN: Do you think it was in part because of the influence on your program? That's what people were hearing so they figured that's what's hot?

COLLINET: Oh yeah. That's the only place they could hear it. And so I told them, really, don't sell yourself to Babylon. You know, be true to yourself. And please, continue to learn the instruments of your tradition, you know, like the Cora or whatever. And the guys would say yeah, but I mean, you know, if I go in the studio how many times am I going to play Cora? Say well, man, just do something with it

MARTIN: Well, you know, Johnny Clegg, you know, the famous South African artist...

COLLINET: Yeah. Mm-Hmm.

MARTIN: ...who is also an Ethnomusicologist...

COLLINET: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...has expressed the same concerns. On the other hand, doesn't it work both ways? I mean weren't American musicians influenced by the sounds of Africa?

COLLINET: Absolutely. We have a program on Afropop...

MARTIN: Isn't that what a Diaspora is?

COLLINET: That's what it is. We have a program on Afropop where we do a special on Africa in America, where you have musicians from all over. Orchestra, bands and things like that, emulating African music or that are hiring, that are playing with African musicians and things like that. And it's amazing. It's awesome. You know, I really sometimes it makes me cry when I see these people. You know, one guy was a white guy with thin as seen as a hippie type of person, thin and blonde and all that, started playing a Cora one day. Oh my goodness. It was unbelievable. I was just saying ahh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: Wow. This is amazing. The guy was so good. So good.

MARTIN: Well, when you think about it now what do you think your legacy is? And I know your career is still going. I don't put, you know, say that you're, you're...

COLLINET: Yes. I'm not dead yet.

MARTIN: You're not dead yet.

COLLINET: Nope.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But do you feel that your legacy in bringing the cultures together, do you feel that it's overwhelmingly positive or are you still worry that something fundamental in Africa has been lost because of the exposure to all this American music?

COLLINET: My main thing now, is to find in Africa, a group, a person that is going to be the Bob Marley, as we say, of African music. We have Youssou N'Dour. Youssou is very good - is very, very good. But besides that, you know, it's very hard to find somebody that goes that reaches out this huge public here. We need more Afropop type of programming, you know, where people play African music and hear African music.

What really bugs me is the fact that we've had several fundraising programs all throughout the States. And, you know, we pack sometimes 1,000 more people. And out of this 1,000 or whatever - 500 or whatever, you know, 99 percent are just young white excited people that love this music. And I say but where are my brothers? What's wrong? Why don't you come and listen to the music of your ancestors, because I play a lot of music during these fundraising programs. And it's, you know, I don't know, it's we have to destroy the ghettos, I guess. And that's our problem that remain thing is to destroy the ghettos of where our African-American brothers are in their little world, you know, and they listen to rap and that's about it. And as the other people are listening to - their ears are more open to the world and we need to do that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, and it's wonderful for you to come and spend some time with us, do you have some wisdom to share?

COLLINET: Wisdom?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: Yes. Wisdom - the first thing I would say is listen. You have to listen. Listen a lot. Listen to what's going on. Listen to your teachers. Listen to the world, because that's very important for you. The second one is you have to always "reinvent" yourself. You know, meaning that, you know, I started with the Voice of America and it became very comfortable. Well, after a while I said hmm, maybe I should move on and so I went into producing documentaries only on Africa, because that's my niche. And then I went to do Afropop, of course, and then now I'm at the World Bank. Can you imagine that?

I started these Podcasts at the World Bank and they are going gangbuster. I just present the voice - the World Bank as what it is. They've done a lot of mistakes in the past, but it's become something that is, to me, quite exciting. I'm doing a series on women's voices right now. It's about this program that we've started at the bank called Think Equal, because to promote gender in quality in the world, for instance. And this is very exciting. I'm having more fun now than I ever had in my whole life, entire life doing all this. You know, Afropop, the documentaries and the World Bank and Michel Martin. Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: Now, today, that's fabulous. You know, what more do you want?

MARTIN: Georges Collinet is host of Public Radio International's Afropop Worldwide, among many other things, as he told us. He was kind enough to join us today in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Georges Collinet, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COLLINET: Thank you, Michel. Can I ask you a question?

Why do you have Michel without l-l-e?

MARTIN: You have to ask my parents.

COLLINET: Oh, I will talk to them.

MARTIN: That decision predated my being able to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLLINET: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also find our podcast there. And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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