D-Day: 7pm, December 2nd 1999 and Alpha Blondy's production crew are locked away in the Marcadet studio in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, a suburb just north of Paris. There's Jamaican producer Clive Hunt (famous for his work with Bob Marley), African arranger Boncana Maïga, sound engineer Hubert and, of course, Alpha himself. All four are locked in intense concentration as they settle down to work on the final mix of Alpha's new album "Elohim" (the Hebrew title means "God" or "I am the multitude").
Alpha, renowned for his painstaking perfectionism, turns up at the studio with a piece of paper covered in intricate signs and scribbles - the changes he intends to make to the song "Djeneba". "I think we should start by making a few changes to the texture of my voice,"
the Ivoirian star says, taking the situation in hand from the start. "It's too slow for you?"
asks Hunt, his fingers poised on the mixing decks. "No, it's not that"
Alpha muses, "the problem is I think it sounds too metallic"
. Hunt flicks a switch, "Djeneba" instantly floods over the speakers and the team settle down for a collective listening session.
Sitting in a corner of the studio, Alpha runs off an approximate translation of the lyrics he penned in Dioula: "Djeneba, I waited for you Tuesday, but you didn't show (...) Now that you're here tonight, we'll smooth all our problems out on the goat skin. Massage me slowly, I've got a sore back, a sore neck, a sore heart. Come on and massage me, Djeneba"
. The funk rhythm of the song and the superb reggae bass line fill the studio with a powerful groove energy. Hunt's Jamaican touch is instantly recognisable and works well with the African input of "maestro" Maïga. (Blondy fans will already be familiar with both producer and arranger - Hunt masterminded the mixing of Blondy's ninth album "Yitzhak Rabin", while Maïga has been working with Blondy since 1992, honing arrangements for the albums "Masada", "Dieu", "Grand Bassam" and "Yitzhak Rabin").
A Perfectionist At Work
Suddenly Hubert the sound engineer comes up with the idea of adding a spot of reverb to the vocals, an effect which he says will instantly give Blondy's voice more volume. Alpha insists on listening to the new version immediately. "Yeah, it sounds lighter now,"
he declares with evident satisfaction. "OK, but given what you're singing about in the song, I don't think we should make it any more so,"
insists Hubert. "Otherwise it's going to sound too 'nice and pretty'."
Alpha, as demanding a perfectionist as ever, insists on Hubert running the entire song by him again. "You know, when you spend so long labouring away in the studio, sometimes you can't get to sleep at night just because of one track,"
he says, as if to excuse his meticulousness, "It's like every time you hear the song you just wince, you don't feel right about it. And that's what was happening with Djeneba. But now it sounds OK and I can breathe a sigh of relief!"
The hands of the studio clock have already shot past 9 and the production team finally get to settle down to their plastic dishes of meat and rice bought from a local Chinese takeaway. "I'm a rice man!"
croons Alpha contentedly, tucking into his favourite cereal. Throughout dinner "Djeneba" plays away in the background. The didgeridoo* adds a particularly haunting note to the song, its deep bass sound appearing to resonate from deep inside the earth. "The didgeridoo on "Djeneba" is played by a Cameroonian musician called Ekwala,"
explains Alpha, "I met him by chance when I was working in a studio one day. I really liked the stuff he was playing so I asked him to come into the studio and record with us. It was as simple as that! Rather than sampling the sound of a didgeridoo and mixing it into the track later we preferred to have the real thing. You know, get a bit of natural breathing in there and all that."Simple Expressions and Popular Sayings
The takeaway finished in record time, the production team get straight back to work. One last major task lies ahead of them - putting Alpha's newly-honed vocals and the "playback" (musical accompaniment) together on the same tape. The first attempt fails - the synchronisation is a few seconds out. So it's on to the second attempt … the third …the fourth … the fifth. Palpable tension is rising in the studio, although for the moment everyone manages to keep their poise and self-control. But the pressure is on. Hunt has to get back to Jamaica early tomorrow morning so the mix has absolutely got to be finished tonight. "OK, let's give it another go,"
says Alpha wearily but insistently. This time round, while listening to the track on headphones, the singer closes his eyes and joins his hands together as if in prayer. And lo and behold! Alpha's prayer is answered. The fifth attempt proves successful and an atmosphere of humour and good-natured camaraderie is instantly restored in the studio.
Alpha's new album features a wide selection of tracks but the spirit of "Elohim" is perhaps best expressed on the song "Les Voleurs de la République", a slow ballad with a heavy beat which gradually transforms itself into a powerful, hard-hitting reggae classic: "Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs sont de retour / Les lèche-bottes ont baissé leur pantalon / Et ils s'érigent en donneurs de leçons / Le complot du silence persévère / La langue de bois exaspère / Ce triste constat me désespère (...) / SOS, les voleurs de la République / SOS, ils volent les deniers publics"
. (Ali Baba and his forty thieves are back / The bootlickers have dropped their trousers / And set themselves up as lesson-givers / The law of silence reigns / Platitudes rain / Exasperating me and making me despair (…) / SOS, the thieves are making off with the Republic / SOS, they're raiding the public coffers"). Reinventing popular sayings and using simple, direct expressions, Alpha the bard of Abidjan, is back with a vengeance.
If you have the slightest doubt just take a listen to the lyrics of "Dictature": "Diviser pour régner / Diviser pour mieux nous arnaquer / Le totalitarisme xénophobe / Mènera à l'adversité / Avec son corollaire de colère généralisée"
. (Divide and rule / Divide and swindle us all / This xenophobic totalitarianism / Will inevitably lead to adversity / And a corollary of widespread rage"). This song, written long before Henri Konan Bédié was expelled from power, proves the lucidity of Alpha the visionary "foulosophe". It's just a shame the former president didn't heed the advice offered on Alpha's last album "Yitzhak Rabin" (which denounced "the Banania democracy" and "one ethnic group's monopoly on power" in no uncertain terms).
No bodyguards - just a soul watchman!
Later, after we've left the studio, Alpha recounts the genesis of his new album "Elohim". "I concentrated on concrete facts," the singer says, "I spent a lot of time reading the papers, listening to the radio, watching television. I picked up a lot from Le Monde, Jeune Afrique, RFI, l'Autre Afrique as well as using the local Ivorian media... I wanted to pass on accurate information. I didn't want to open myself up to accusations of having settled some kind of personal score. I was simply trying to echo the hopes and aspirations of people who don't have a voice in this world. You know, I lead a pretty quiet life in Abidjan. I'm cut off from the outside world a lot of the time - I like to give priority to my interior equilibrium and the spiritual side of things. I spend time looking after my work and my family, listening to the kids. When it came to observing the world of politics, I thought it was best to use research carried out by journalists who actually go out there and find out what's happening in the field. I also keep in contact with a few young brothers from the ghetto who come out to my house and my maquis. I hang out with them sometimes incognito and we sit down in local cafés and discuss what's going on in the world over a glass of tea."
Alpha, a cool laid-back Rasta, enjoys hanging out in the kind of bars and cafes frequented by normal people rather than places designed for the elite. In order to avoid too much attention from his fans, the singer tends to go out at unexpected moments of the day or night. "I arrange to meet my mates somewhere where we can sit around normally and laugh and joke or - if we're in the mood - discuss national and international politics. That way I get to find out what's going on."
Alpha never travels anywhere with a bodyguard - in fact, even his greatest critics would have to admit he's never bought into the star system. "As far as I'm concerned,"
insists Alpha, "the real star is God."
God tends to crop up fairly frequently in Alpha's conversation, the singer variously describing Him as an obsession, the bodyguard of his heart and a being who watches over his fragile soul. If you try and draw Alpha on the subject of his past mistakes - his support for the former Ivoirian government followed by his abrupt U-turn, for instance - the singer replies on a humorous note which is nevertheless tinged with real emotion: "I don't know if there are many people like me in the world who say to themselves 'Lord, you do my head in. I never asked for the life you gave me. I just try to do what's best, do what I can to help you carry out your Creation and it keeps coming back on me all the time. I try to get through the trials you send me as best I can with my limited android comprehension."
As for his participation in the "Caravane de l'Unité" in 1995 in support of the PDCI (the party of the ex Ivoirian president), Alpha is keen to set the record straight. "People came to me and said: 'The country's in danger of civil war. What are you going to do about it?' Personally, I'm in favour of unity and I threw myself into the project (the "Caravane de l'Unité) body and soul, together with my manager Koné Dodo. We even ended up investing a lot of our own money in the project. The politicians who asked us for our support swore they'd contribute funds to the project, but they broke their promises. We ended up losing 77 million African francs (770,000 French francs) in the whole business! At the end of it all me and Koné found ourselves counting out our last pennies to try and shore up the huge hole left in our finances. We stopped working together for a while after that business. I admit that for a while we both got bogged down in rumours and started listening to people saying 'Koné did this to you', 'Alpha did that to you!' It's like the old saying goes, victory has a father but defeat is an orphan. Fortunately Koné and I pulled ourselves together in the end and started working together again. We know each other from way back - our mothers used to work together at the market in Boundiali, a town up in the north of Côte-d'Ivoire. I'll never forget that."The Norbert Zongo Affair
Alpha is also involved in a spot of activist fund-raising, donating all the profits from "Journalistes en Danger (Démocrature)" - the first single release from "Elohim" - to Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). Created fifteen years ago, this organisation defends the freedom of the press, helping journalists and reporters around the world who have fallen victim to state repression. In 1999, 36 journalists were murdered as a result of their professional activity. By a strange coincidence Alpha happened to write a song about the freedom of the press that year (the chorus containing the famous lines "The democracy of the strongest is always the best") when RSF contacted him and asked him to get involved in publicising the Norbert Zongo affair. (Zongo, a journalist from Burkina Faso, had disappeared and his charred remains were found in his car on 13 December 1998). Alpha responded to RSF's appeal by adding a special prelude to his a cappella reggae anthem: "On a moonlit night / My friend Zongo / Refused to muzzle his pen / In Burkina Faso / Zongo was burnt to death / For the love of God, let justice be done."
In the weeks leading up to his death Zongo, editor of L'Indépendant newspaper, had been looking into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a chauffeur who worked for the brother of the Burkino Faso president. The chauffeur was believed to have been tortured to death in the headquarters of the president's bodyguards. However, not one of the six "serious murder suspects" named in an independent enquiry (all of whom were members of the president's personal guard) had been indicted. Given the court's failure to bring Zongo's killers to justice, the moral and material support Blondy has given to RSF has played an important role in the case.
This is a very serious affair in which the president's brother himself is implicated and no-one has yet been brought to justice,"
says Robert Ménard, general secretary of Reporters Sans Frontières, "However, thanks to Alpha's international reputation it will be a lot more difficult to hush the case up completely. Alpha's song, which is already available on cassette in Burkina Faso and in various other African countries, will keep the memory of Norbert Zongo alive. When you think about how important music is in Africa an initiative like this can make a major impact."The first time I saw Alpha in concert was in Ouagadougou, when he played at the FESPACO in 1999. He really set the stadium alight. Up until then I hadn't really realised the extent of his popularity. We're hoping to reach the maximum number of people through this project - anonymous music fans, but also international bodies such as the European Union which gives subsidies to the government in Ouagadougou and which has the right to suspend these subsidies in the case of human rights' abuse. By publicising the Norbert Zongo affair we're hoping to denounce a general failing in the justice system. Around 750 journalists have been murdered in the past fifteen years and - in over 95% of the cases - absolutely no attempt has been made to track down the killers."A Song For Reporters Sans Frontières
The proceeds from Alpha's single "Journalistes en Danger (Démocrature)" will provide RSF with much-needed finances to send lawyers to trouble spots around the world, provide assistance for the families of imprisoned journalists and help pay towards medical expenses. "Alpha Blondy and Koné Dodo have managed to mobilise their entire team,"
says Ménard, "and the La Une Musique label, Sony and Coex have also donated 100% of their copyright fees on "Journalistes en Danger" to the organisation. We're used to working with photographers who publish magazines and give the proceeds to RSF. But this is the first time that we've worked with a musician - and a famous one at that! To be honest, we were a bit worried about working with a musician to begin with, because of the whole star system thing. But working with Alpha has been an absolute joy - he's a simple and very humble star who's extremely aware of social problems. One night we went out to Alpha's
maquis in Abidjan for dinner and we spent hours sitting round the dinner table discussing projects and exchanging ideas. When we were getting ready to head home Alpha suddenly jumped up and got his car to take us home. I meet a lot of people in my line of work, but I've rarely come across kindness and consideration like that."And - last but not least - Bercy!
Fired with enthusiasm after their recent collaboration with Blondy, RSF are currently working on a concert project with Radio France Internationale. The concert, which will mark the 15th anniversary of RSF, is due to be staged in Paris as part of the annual Fête de la Musique (June 21st 2000). Meanwhile, Alpha's record sales are looking extremely promising. In France, on the first day of its commercial release, record shops placed orders for 21,000 copies of the single "Journalistes en Danger (Démocrature)" and orders for the album "Elohim" are almost double that. Alpha's agent, Jo Pando, and tour organisers Olivier Jouan and Michel Martigues are already beavering away behind the scenes preparing for the singer's mega-stadium show at Bercy (Paris) on October 18th. (We've been told fans can expect several major guest stars and a host of other surprises!)
Since the release of his first record "Brigadier Sabari" in 1984, Blondy, the giant of African reggae, has undergone a series of career ups and downs. However, after each major setback he has picked himself up, dusted himself down and come storming back in style. Now, proving that he has lost none of his legendary form, Blondy is back once again with a superb new album featuring a musical breath of fresh air and a stunning voice capable of expressing the deepest scars of life as well as abiding hope.
French text: Fara C.
Translation: Julie Street
* the long bamboo pipe played by Australian aborigines
Alpha Blondy's international tour kicks off in April and features 35 dates. Highlights include:
Cairo, Egypt (27 April)
FESTA - a festival organised by Alpha Blondy Productions in Bassam, Côte-d'Ivoire(29 April)
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso(5 May)
Yaoundé, Cameroon (11 May)
Saint-Etienne, the "Palais des Sports", France (25 May)
Grenoble, "Le Summum" (26 May) Marseille, Festival "Le Dock des Suds" France (27 May)
Clermont-Ferrand, the "Coopérative de Mai", France (29 May)
Lens, the Communist Party Festival, (1 June)
The Luxembourg Festival (2 June)
Brussels, the Couleur Café Festival (30 June)
And Paris, Bercy" (18 October).