Posts Tagged ‘zouglou’

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…