Posts Tagged ‘Yopougon’

Abidjan miniatures 8 and end

December 31, 2020

Abidjan is probably the easiest place on earth to find a taxi. They beep at you incessantly the second you place yourself on the pavement, even when you just want to cross the street. They are, in fact, louder and more insistent than their colleagues in Dakar but somehow manage to be less annoying, mostly because in this city literally EVERYONE is making noise… So: taxi. Within seconds.

The driver fills his seat to overflowing and he has positioned his corpulent self like someone on an extended relaxing holiday. But he is most assuredly at work and does not miss a beat when manoeuvering his orange Toyota through the throng in this, the busiest part of the city. And in the meantime: he talks, virtually non-stop. “See this traffic jam?” Er, yes, I do. We are in it. A long procession of private vehicles, blue wôro-wôro, buses, taxis (including mine), vans, gbaka stands still and does not move. This may be a looong ride…

“You see? These people are not even leaving Yopougon. They’re on their way to the next maquis. Everything is here! You want beer, there’s beer. You want food, there is food. You see that bar over there?” He points to his right, across a pavement, lined with food stalls and busy like a bus station. “Yes, that one. Now! When that maquis on the other side closes…” he points to his left: amidst blocks of apartments I spot part of an open space packed with tables and chairs and I pick up the sound of a band that is clearly attempting to top L’Internat in the decibel production department. You only have ONE guess as to the music it plays

“Yes – that’s the place I mean,” my guide and driver continues. “Now. When that maquis closes everybody crosses the road to come here. You see the girls getting ready?” He was not only referring to the ones selling food. “This is the new Rue Princesse, you see? After they had knocked down the old one they all came over here.” Rue Princesse, for the uninitiated, is the busiest street in the area, where boys with money meet drinks meet food meet girls looking for a good time and some money (and maybe even the other way around)… hence the name. You may, by now, have reached the conclusion that the urge to turn life into one giant party is irrepressible here and you would be right.

After an interminable ride through Yopougon we emerge onto one of the three bridges that give access to the six-lane motorway that is part of the giant motorway system linking all constituent parts of this giant city. There’s always a bit of anarchy going on here, to put it mildly. My driver, forever slouched in his seat, belly protruding as we hurtle along, explains that there’s a lot of accidents happening on this stretch of road (in fact I saw an overturned gbaka minibus on the way in) because people don’t keep their distance.

Neither does he, as he alternates between one line of fast moving vehicles and another…

Angré. Oh dear…are you really going back there…?

“So Angré it is where you’re going, right? But there’s nothing there! No life!” The traffic starts thinning out as we get to our exit lane into Cocody, leading to the Boulevard that takes us to Angré. There’s still a bunch of cars about but nothing in the way that Yopougon was crowded. My driver is almost triumphant as he weaves his way in and out of smooth flowing traffic on the two-lane boulevard. “See? Told you! Nothing here! The bosses are sleeping!” It is just after 10pm and we are, indeed, entering a more affluent part of the city. “Now, in Yopougon, hm, you will see people out and about at midnight. One, two, three in the morning. Yes! And do you know why there are so many banks in Yopougon? Simple: when people are having a good time and the money runs out, there’s always one who will say: ah, let me just pop over to the bank and get some more money for our next beers…? You see? But here….”

But then some doubt creeps into his discourse. “Look, I am working really long hours to get some money and then I pass those maquis – every day of the week, and the same guys sit there at eleven pm, twelve midnight, three am…and they are supposed to work the next day? Of course not. And then the next day…I see them again! Where do they get all that money from? I don’t quite understand…” It is likely that the equally ubiquitous Western Union agencies have something to do with that seemingly endless flow of money…

And then he drops me off in far too quiet, empty and miserable Angré. And he almost feels sorry for me. “Look at you, I’m leaving you in this stone dead neck of the woods and look at me and where I am going: back to life, back to joy, back to good food and plenty drinks and gorgeous princesses…” Do I get the picture?

Yes. Certainly. I do. See you soon in this city, enjoyable and exasperating, full of life, noise, crime and grime but in possession of copious amounts of Never Say Die. I will be back.

An Excellent New Year to You All.

Abidjan miniatures 7

December 30, 2020

An evening in Yopougon

C’est mangrrrove. You know what that means? You know what a mangrove is, right? Where trees are growing in the water, right? But here in Côte d’Ivoire mangrrrove means: nice, lovely…”

Thanks for the language lesson, Roger, who says he is one of the neighbourhood youths that designs the dazzling street dances that have for the longest time been a part of the tradition at the place where I meet him: L’Internat, also known as the Zouglou Temple, where the ambiance is, indeed, mangrrrove.

Alright. What is zouglou and where is L’Internat?

Zouglou was born in the huge Abidjan suburb of Yopougon and L’Internat, located well inside Yopougon in the Niangon Sud part of this massive maze has been its principal podium ever since it opened in 2009. “Zouglou is music that allows you to have a good time but it’s also a way for people to express themselves.” That’s Cécilia Yao talking, a visitor I interviewed for a Voice of America report on this place and its music (starts at 25 minutes 30 seconds into this lovely program). She explains in a few words the absolute genius of zouglou: this is music that makes you dance and think at the same time. The rhythms are based on beats that come from around the country, as Yodé & Siro, two veteran zouglou artists and two true gentlemen explained to me the day after my evening in L’Internat. The instantly recognisable multi-layered singing, too: there’s a bit of the Centre in it, the West, even the North…and a detectable link to Congolese rhumba. Their point was this: even though zouglou was born in Yopougon, it is very much part of national Ivorian identity.

Most of you will know the biggest zouglou hit ever, Magic System’s Premier Gaou, which made it all the way to MTV in the 1990s. An apparently autobiographical account of a poor boy who is rejected by a girl, who then tries to rope him in again when he has become famous thanks to a hit song he’s written. Magic System are still huge and one of their offshoots is a music company, unsurprisingly called Gaou Productions. Other bands have also made sure that their names are not easily forgotten: Les Salopards, Les Garagistes, Les Patrons…

A whiteboard-like wall, next to the bar, gives you some of the biggest names who stood on the stage of this mythical place…

The thinking part of zouglou comes from the words, as another visitor to L’Internat, Olivier, explains. Like Cécilia (and yours truly) he comes a veeeery long way, from the Cocody neighbourhood of Angré, to see the bands and have a ton of drinks and fun with his friends. Mind you, this is only once a week on the Sunday and it tends to end pretty early because for many of the music lovers here, tomorrow is a working day. “Zouglou…it’s the  beautiful music and the words,” Olivier explains. “There’s good advice on how to behave, how to live…” In actual fact, many of the songs tell not-so-uplifting but truly hilarious stories about what has happened in the street, the neighbourhood, the antics of a veritable rogues’ gallery of small-time crooks and two-timing husbands and/or wives, brought to you (we cannot stress this enough) with a huge dollop of uniquely Ivorian humour. Abidjan is called the Capital of Laughter for a reason.

Seven years ago, during another visit here, there was one song that kept coming back: Je Roule Kdo (that’s ‘cadeau’ for you, and in this neck of the woods ‘cadeau’ means ‘for nothing’, or ‘free of charge’…). It told the story of two Frenchmen who were swindled out of a very large amount of money by a wily Yopougon taxi driver…so large was the sum that he could buy a car from the proceeds – hence the title. A party of very robustly built neighbourhood women was dancing to this tune, whilst pretending to be at the wheel. They had an absolute screamer of a good time, while I was having visions of their husbands, tied to the kitchen table back home…

Evening has fallen and as usual, the music cascading from the PA system has reached such ear-splitting levels that the sounds starts bouncing back from the buildings around the place. To give my ears some relief, I move to the adjacent parking lot, which is where I meet Roger and Olivier, and where I interview artistic director Patron Sylvanus, who explains how zouglou is also a great leveller, as it makes you forget, if only temporary, who is boss and who isn’t. Even when there are plenty of songs to remind the listener of exactly that…

Yodé (left) & Siro, after the interview

Like the latest Yodé & Siro tune, Président On Dit Quoi (the last three words here are, in Ivorian parlance, the universally used phrase to ask you how you are), where they take a few digs at the current government of president Alassane Ouattara. “It’s nice that there’s light everywhere now. Tarred roads everywhere. There’s even lights IN the tarred roads (a reference to the tiny lights that alert drivers they are about to stray into a lane for oncoming traffic…). Our country is becoming really beautiful. But president, why is it that we always hear that the money is working…but then we only see certain people eating well and oh, by the way, why is it you don’t care what happens to us when we fall ill? Ah yes, I forgot: you lot always go abroad for medical treatment…”

Yes, in spite of the banter and the jokes the lyrics can be pretty hard-hitting. Yodé & Siro did not really want to discuss their recent legal troubles with me, the result of their comments on the partisan actions of the nation’s State Prosecutor, which landed them a suspended prison sentence and a substantial fine but they were clearly undeterred: “Look, we have been lampooning presidents ever since we began. Just because there is a new government now does not mean we are going to change. It’s our job to tell leaders what they do right and what they do wrong…”

One famous episode recounts how, when Laurent Gbagbo became president, Yodé & Siro did a song that warned him: if you appoint thieves in your entourage, you will be called a thief. One day, they were called to the presidential palace, where they went with some trepidation. Gbagbo had lined up his entire cabinet of ministers, so the story goes, and then ordered the two artists to sing their song on the spot. When they had finished, the president told his ministers: “You see? It’s YOU they are singing about. YOU are the thieves…” This is unlikely to have changed the actual situation materially – corrupt bureaucrats have been a blight on this country for decades – but it does show you the extent to which zouglou is part of the Ivorian DNA. Président On Dit Quoi was on permanent rotation in the maquis, on the radio, in the markets, everywhere…

Photo credit: L’Internat Facebook page

But now, for me, the time has come to leave L’Internat. This is very sad but my left ear is ringing from the World War Three levels of the sound system. Ever since I caused a rather unfortunate sound accident in a self-op studio some nine years ago in Hilversum there’s a maximum to what that ear can tolerate. And yes, even more maddeningly, my back has started protesting yet again… (I don’t moan about it all the time but rest assured that it moans at me on an almost permanent basis…). So it is time for a taxi and the last instalment of these Abidjan stories…