“Football…it’s only a game.” That’s not a claim you’ve often heard made in Ivory Coast, a country that has been hacked to pieces by sectarian violence and ethnic hatred. Pride in the success of the national football team is a precious and rare unifying force. “For a sick country like ours it’s good to think about other things than war,” muses Ivorian reggae superstar Tiken Jah Fakoly. “The fact that Ivory Coast has qualified for the World Cup Finals makes the nation unify themselves around the challenge of winning.”
Ivory Coast’s descent into hell follows the tragic post-colonial template of African politics. An old school political patriarch, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, rules the nation for 33 years after independence from France, with an iron fist, and an intolerance for communists, trade unions and free-speech. But the country prospers thanks to booming cocoa and coffee exports until the first world decides to slash commodity prices in the 1980s and boom turns to bust. Houphouet-Boigny dies in 1993 and leaves the stage bare for a bunch of political naifs to play the democratic game.
With foreigners making up over 25% of the population, xenophobia seems an attractive fast route to demagogic success, and President Henri Bédié develops the odious notion of ivoirité, a political philosophy of which the BNP would feel proud. The same philosophy is pursued by his nemesis General Robert Guéï and the present leader Laurent Gbagbo. In 2002, the north rebels. The country splits in two with the Muslim north facing the Christian or animist south. France becomes enmired in the general political filth. Byelorussian mercenaries are called in. The people suffer. The people wait.
These events have radicalised a whole generation of Ivorian musicians, but none more so than Tiken Jah Fakoly. In the mid 1980s Tiken Jah was letting his backbone slip to the beat of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and U-Roy in front of the cassette shop sound systems of his native town of Hodiéné in the north east of Ivory Coast. When he finally managed to track down an English speaker he discovered that his reggae heroes were singing about freedom, dignity and Africa. But how was he to emulate them when his grasp of English was limited to the few broken phrases courtesy of the Ivorian education system. Then the don of African reggae, Alpha Blondy, came into his life.
“What I learned from him was simply that reggae could be sung in an African language. In his and my case the language was dioula,” explains Tiken Jah. “We’re used to saying that Ivory Coast is the country of reggae whereas Senegal is the country of hip hop. That’s because the rhythm of the dioula language is well suited to reggae. Whereas wolof, which is spoken very fast by the Senegalese, lends itself well to rap, as does the griot tradition in Mali.”
After Houphouet-Boigny’s death in December 1993, and the subsequent gradual disintegration of Ivorian society, Tiken Jah Fakoly began to ditch the proverbial approach to musical protest, so favoured by the older generation, and to let the truth stand naked for all to see. His 1996 album ‘Mangercratie’, which urged politicians to forget all their luxurious discussions about all the different ‘cracies and concentrate on the simple right of all to be fed, hit West Africa like a tornado and went on to sell over half a million ‘official’ cassettes. Nobody knows how many millions of units the pirates have shifted. It made Tiken Fakoly a star, and a spokesperson for the bramagos, the impoverished hopeless youth of Abidjan, Bouaké, Bamako and Dakar. His reputation spread to France and the USA, and the venerable French record label Barclay signed him up.
The success of ‘Mangercratie’ and its successors ‘Cours d’histoire’ (1999), ‘Françafrique’ (2002) and ‘Coup de Gueule’ (2004) boosted the Fakoly phenomenon to the point at which only stadiums could hope to accommodate his legions of fans in West Africa. Like Bob Marley or Fela Kuti, he has achieved that rare status of untouchability, where his fame is such that no politician would dare eliminate him for fear of the popular protest such a move might unleash.
It was not always so. Hit lists have often been unearthed with Tiken Jah’s name prominent amongst those of journalists, trade unionists and opposition politicians. For a while he owed his survival to a small group of soldiers in General Guéï’s bodyguard who also happened to be huge reggae fans. When the heat began to rise they would tip Tiken Jah off and he would flee north into Mali or Burkina Faso to wait for things to cool down. Courage is a core component of his star status. “I’m not scared,” he recently declared. “If they have to assassinate me because I tell the truth, no problem. I’m ready. Someone has to say these things.”
The musical vehicle Tiken Jah Fakoly has chosen to transmit his message is the classic fist-in-the-air reggae sound of the 1970s, replete with lilting ganja-grooves, lush horn arrangements and feel good vocal harmonies. “That’s what I call real reggae,” he says with conviction. “The artists who have survived are people like Burning Spear. He never did any ragga, or jungle, or bogle. He stayed with the ‘70s sound. If you ask ten youths in Mali or Ivory Coast, they don’t know Buju Banton, they don’t know Sizzla. But they know Burning Spear, they know U-Roy. That proves that roots reggae will last.” Tiken Jah has made several pilgrimages to mix and record at Kingston’s legendary Tuff Gong Studios. When he reminisces about sessions with Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Tyrone Downie, ubiquitous producer Clive Hunt, and above all, the hero of his youth, U-Roy, the pride and pleasure he feels are palpable.
Despite his handsome mane of dreadlocks, and his life-long devotion to reggae as a genre, Tiken Jah is very clear about his position with regards to Rastafarianism. He was raised in a strict Muslim family and didn’t even dare declare his intention to become a professional musician until his father died in 1987. “He would never have accepted it, and nor would have his entourage. All his friends would have said, “Why do you let your son sing. Don’t you know he’ll go to hell when he dies?!”” Nonetheless, Tiken Jah remains a devout believer, and as such, accepts Rasta as a set of moral values, rather than a religion in itself. “I’m a Muslim but the link between myself and Rasta is Haile Selassie,” he explains. “He was an African leader who liberated his people from the colonial oppressor. His philosophy was to give to each person their dignity, and to aspire to equality and justice. That was the struggle of His Majesty and I adhere to that.”
Tiken Jah Fakoly’s lyrics sometimes lack the spiritual subtlety of Bob Marley, but considering the brute realities of African current affairs, maybe the time for subtlety has yet to come. “They condone dictatorship / Just to make us hungry / They plunder our riches / To bury us alive / They’ve burned the Congo / Inflamed Angola / They’ve ruined Gabon / They’ve burned Kinshasa” goes the chorus of ‘Françafrique’, the incendiary opening track of Tiken Jah’s new compilation album ‘Tiken Jah Fakoly’, which is due out soon in the UK on Wrasse Records. The song targets the French politicians and businessmen who, for decades, have treated the ex-French colonies of Africa as their own personal goldmine, condoning the worst political excesses in exchange for financial and political profit. The message is as simple as the realities are hard and the suffering is deep. At least someone has the courage to say it out loud.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2006
First published in The Independent – June 2006