Is Cote D'Ivoire's sounding its last beats?

To relieve the stress of war Cote D'Ivorians founded an intense style of music that may have become a new genre.

    When President Gabgo refused to step down after the last elections fighting broke out, but the music continued [EPA]

    Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire – When the war came to Cote D'Ivoire, Ivorians went dancing. They hid from their fears in the bass and treble of a busy-beats, crisis-bred club movement called Coupe-Decale, and the genre became a huge source of national pride.

    But now there is peace, and some senior music professionals are already eulogising the style, saying its relevance has expired and its death is imminent.

    Put that scenario to DJ Debordinio, and he looks a little insulted.

    "It's not possible," he says simply, with a slight shake of his head.

    The style was born in 2003, not long after Cote D'Ivoire's ethnic and political tensions erupted into nine years of off and on warfare. It was a child of guns, bombs, and fear. Normal people needed a way out of all the violence, at least emotionally, if not physically, too.

    Coupe-Decale was the escape hatch.

    The name is French slang for cheat and run, and the culture is all about lavish debauchery. Its originators were a group of DJs called La Jet Set, and their stylish, charismatic frontman was Stephan Doukoure, known to fans as Douk-Saga, or the President. In 2007, while seeking health treatment in Burkina Faso, he died, leaving behind a trove of classic tracks, not least of which is Sagacite.

    His legacy is all about cigars and girls, hot tubs and nightclubs. The beats are fast and frenetic, mixing traditional sensibilities with Western techno. The lyrics are simple and anthemic, satirising crisis and promoting boozy bashes.  

    It was desperately needed during the war, and it became an international youth movement, one headquartered in the West African lagoon city of Abidjan.

    "They are songs to make you move," says the barrel-chested Debordinio, whose real name is Yves Roland N'Guesson "For us, it's joy. We don't talk about war. We're far from politics."

    But politics exist, and talking about them is becoming easier. A reconciliation committee was recently announced to come to terms with the war's final chapter, when former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to hand over power after he lost last November's election. Fighting raged throughout the winter and into the spring.

    It's still a central topic of conversation in bars and cafes. An investigation announced a few weeks ago by the International Criminal Court could reach as far back as 2002, when the first war broke out. Some observers say its findings could cause the country still more unrest, but, in Abidjan, the mood seems one of reflection and optimism.

    Because of this, some people are saying Coupe-Decale is no longer necessary, that it's lost its relevance in the national imagination, and Zouglou, a lynchpin genre in Ivorian music, will once again reign supreme. Call it a feedback system, a lockstep evolution between culture and war.

    "Right now, Coupe-Decale is losing ground," says Zie Coulibay, who is a professor, project director, and performance industry developer. "The reasons of its birth make it a movement that will come to a close.

    "They are not singers for real. They don't know how to make live music, only play it back."

    Waiting in the wings is Zouglou, which is often compared to reggae, but has its own francophone and Ivorian flavours and hues. The instrumentation is real, not electronic, and the lyrics are generally pensive and positive, promoting peace and human rights. It started in the 70s as a student protest movement, and it's been around ever since, with many of its practitioners finding international success.

    "It's music for the soul of the country," says Ibrahim Diencky, a 24-year music producer and sound engineer. "It's how our people express themselves."

    During the war, the people wanted to express themselves differently. They were surrounded by the fundamental, often incomprehensible challenges of life and death, and reflecting on them was often too hard.

    According to a recently released Human Rights Watch report, 3,000 civilians were killed in the violence triggered by last November's elections. More than 150 women were raped, often as punishment for organizing rallies. Supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who won the election in the eyes of the international community, were dragged from restaurants, only to turn up later in morgues. Perceived supporters of Ouattara were stopped at checkpoints and beaten to death with bricks, or lit on fire. Ouattara forces then responded with similar tactics. And all this in just the six months after November 2010, never mind the previous years of war, intermittent fighting, and division.

    'People of the night'

    "Zouglou could not serve the needs of the people," says Coulibay. "The people needed to enjoy themselves."

    N'Draman Desire Carlos is known in Africa and Europe as DJ Bonano. He's a tall, stringy, soft-spoken man who launched his Coupe-Decale career by dressing up as a cowboy. He has one album out, is promoting a forthcoming effort, and performed during the fighting.

    At that time, government imposed an 8 pm curfew in Abidjan. It fundamentally altered the soul of the city, which runs at high fever pretty much all night.

    "We are a people of the night," he says. "Artists, DJs, club mangers. We are les homes de la nuit. It's at night we get money to eat."

    The men of the night adapted and became creatures of the morning. They started throwing their events at 9 am, even as fighting was underway in another corner of the city, and they kept at it for ten hours.

    "At first," he says, "we were afraid. In our minds, we weren't free. We were stressed."

    But they went with it, losing themselves in the dozens of absurdist, rubbery dance moves that help define the genre. Reality would settle in around 7 pm, when everyone realised they were far from home and pressed for time. The music was over. The war was back.

    The Zouglou war experience was different. In the presidential campaign that led up to the fighting, a group called Les Galliets played pro-Gbagbo events and rallies. They had known him since he launched his successful presidential bid in the 2000 elections, when they met him at a political function.

    "As we were singing, he got up and started dancing," says band member Diabate Moussa. "After the show, he approached us and asked if we could sing at his events."

    They maintain they weren't a political message machine, that they were just traditional Zouglou entertainment. Every party had their favourite bands, they say. This was just more of the same – and all in the promotion of peace.

    But that wasn't the popular perception during the most recent outburst of violence.

    "We were afraid of reprisals," says Diabate Allydjou, another member of the group. "Really, we were in a bad position. We had to move."

    They watched from France as the country tore itself apart and the genre fell out of favour. But the band is nestled deep in the Ivorian cultural milieu. They've been around since 1990, starting out with funeral gigs and building to their first, second, and third albums. Now back in Abidjan, they freely admit that Coupe-Decale muscled in on Zouglou success, but they think a new wave is rolling ashore, and they have a single planned to promote national reconciliation.

    "The Zouglou can come back now because it's the right moment," Diencky says. "Coupe-Decale will die."

    Perhaps the most significant blow to the genre is the recent destruction of its Rue Princesses headquarters. The place was once a hectic chaos of food hawkers and nightclubs, and everything poured off the sidewalks and into the streets. Ouattara wants the world to see a cleaner, more Westernised Abidjan, and the government razed the area. All that's left is rubble.

    But DJ Debordinio is not the least bit phased by all this. He's got a new album coming out soon, and the video promo is full of the usual scenes of undulating women and fuming cigars. He doesn't need a war to throw a party.

    "If there are clubs and DJs, it will exist," he says. "We will find another place. They can't break all the clubs and bars in Abidjan."

    Paul Carlucci is a freelance journalist living in Accra, Ghana. His work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Vancouver Review, and Al Jazeera English.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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