This was a concert with an edge. Circumstances conspired to lift this performance from one of beautifully arranged and composed music onto another level; here crowd and artist shared not only in each others’ sounds, but in their souls too.
Arguably Ivory Coast’s most political contemporary musician was performing his most politically conscious album, at a time when his country had sunk into a civil war that has cost some 1500 lives.
“Nobody hoped the situation would reach this stage. Il faut cedez le fauteuil, le pouvoir [literally, you must hand over the ‘presidential armchair’, power]” Tiken Jah Fakoly tells me, in reference to Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election to Alassane Ouattara but refused to cede control. At the time of this interview, Gbagbo was desperately clinging to power whilst hiding in a bunker under his house in Abidjan.
That night, 4 April 2011, the Barbican theatre was almost entirely on its feet, swaying to reggae melodies layered with distinctly West African sounds drawn from the charms of the kora, ngoni, and balafon (all recently added to his band). An Ivorian fan from the crowd, draped in his national flag, ran across the theatre and up onto the stage, handing Tiken the emblem in a purely symbolic gesture.
“The European Union, the United States, the African Union – they all demanded Gbagbo leave, and he refused. In history, sometimes force is the only way. Negotiating didn’t work. Sadly we arrived at this situation” laments Tiken, whose rusty voice in itself seems to carry the pain of a nation’s suffering.
One could be forgiven for believing Tiken Jah Fakoly had been building his entire career up to this moment. African Revolution was released in late 2010. Perhaps the album’s most memorable song is Political War, featuring Nigerian soul singer Asa, who performed alongside Tiken at the Barbican. It’s a plaintive story of political disillusion based on their parents’ experiences in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Their eponymous chorus rings in the ears like the wailing of the bereaved. Tiken was performing for the first time in London just as the violence in Ivory Coast had intensified into one of the world’s worsening humanitarian crises. This was a concert that mattered.
But in fact, lyrically, Tiken’s music has been politically conscious for some time. From 1993 he began to move away from the metaphor traditionally adopted by griot musicians, which is his heritage, into more direct political attacks after the death of Ivory Coast’s long-standing president Félix Houphouey-Boigny.
“I think if the politicians had listened to me years ago, things would not have turned out this way. In Le Caméléon (first released across West Africa in 2000, then internationally in 2008), I made it clear to people in West Africa that things were bad, that they had to stop, and I wasn’t alone – Alpha Blondy and Ismaël Isaac were also saying politicians needed to be checked.
This approach has both increased his regional and international popularity and risked him his life. Subjected to death threats, he left Abidjan in 2003. He was then banned from Senegal after criticizing its president in 2007 and over the past few years exiled himself in Bamako, Mali, due to the political instability blighting the Ivory Coast.
In the complex world of international politics and advocacy in which Tiken now operates, which would be the one change he would like to see in African politics.
“The struggle against corruption in Africa. With corruption, development is difficult. The wealth of natural resources cannot go to the people. Politicians need to stop talking about ending corruption and put together effective laws and acts that will prevent it from happening.”
What of the role of the external actors, the western donors?
“I don’t think the international community needs to help us. We are not children. We are sovereign. We can take our own route.”
If any artist could embody this route, it would be Tiken Jah Fakoly. Musically, African Revolution is a conscious statement. It encompasses his early adoption of roots reggae, particularly Bob Marley’s, and indeed was partly recorded at Tuff Gong studio in Kingston. But the bulk of the album was produced and recorded in Bamako, under the instrumental influence of West Africa, his homeland. Ideologically, he’s clasped the torch of Peter Tosh, Marley and Ivorian reggae musicians to become a ‘truth teller’, speaking up against injustice. And for sheer on-stage bravura – with statuesque Black Panther salutes, cross-stage sprints, jumps, and flying kicks to drum beats – I saw him as African reggae’s answer to Mick Jagger.
“The role of the reggae musician is very important” he says. “The role is to wake up our children. Music can make people understand what is happening, when politicians say one thing and something else is happening.”
Tiken has developed an enormous following in West Africa. His 2003 Victoires de la Musique Award is a testament to his popularity in France. The growing fanbase across the world support him not just for his wonderful music but for his courage. At the time of writing, his country’s erstwhile despot has reportedly fallen and the curfew has been lifted. Perhaps a new chapter is opening for Ivory Coast. Everyone is hoping it won’t be one of violence. Come what may, Tiken’s voice will continue to sound, loud and clear.