Tiken Jah Fakoly is without a doubt Africa's most promising reggae star. The man's charisma takes one back to the glory days of Bob Marley, and lyrically he doesn't shy away from telling it like it is either. We caught up with Tiken for the release of his 'L'Africain' album.
Listening to 'L'Africain' for the first time, one notices immediately that it has much more of an African feel than your previous albums. Was that a conscious choice?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Yes, it was. I wanted to make an album dedicated to Africa, so the music had to reflect that. I used traditional African instruments and even the photo I used for the cover of the album has an authentic African feel to it with those traditional hunters in it. I wanted to put my continent in a different light, affirm my African identity and show that in spite of all the negative things happening there, Africa still deserves respect and consideration."
Can you tell us a bit more about that photo you used for the cover of the album?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Right now, Africa is in a phase of westernisation. The elite is wearing expensive western suits instead of the traditional clothes that are still being made in the local dressmaker's workshops. These hunters, on the contrary, refuse to shed their customs and traditions. By using that photo for the cover, I wanted to pay them homage, because I think they're absolutely right in wanting to protect their values and identity."
You recorded this album in your own studio in Bamako, together with the musicians with whom you've been touring for a number of years now. Was this a dream come true?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Absolutely! When I went to Jamaica for the first time in 1999 (for the recording of the album 'Cours d'Histoire', red.), I noticed that a lot of artists over there had their own studio. When you can work in conditions like that, it changes the whole vibe, because you're in your own place. After seeing that, I also wanted to establish my own studio as soon as possible to be able to work in a peaceful and stress-free environment."
You named the studio "H. Camara", honouring one of your friends in Ivory Coast. He's not really known here in Europe, what can you tell us about him?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "We just call it "Studio H.". It's the name of a comedian from Ivory Coast who was murdered in 2002 by death squads working for the regime in Abidjan. By doing this they wanted to demonstrate that they could get anyone anytime, even a very popular person like H. Camara. He was most popular in the north of the country, so his murder was also a message to frighten the people in that part of Ivory Coast. H. was just arrested one night and the next morning his body was found in an alley. He was a man that was there for me on several occasions when I needed help. I lived under his roof for about two years, but that's not why I named my studio in his honour. He was a man with his own convictions, someone who, just like me, longed for change and comedy was his way to spread his ideas. I decided a man like him should not be forgotten and I looked for an excuse to be able to talk about him for the rest of my life. The length of my career and as long as the studio remains operational, people will ask me about the how and why behind this name, giving me exactly the opportunity I was looking for to talk about him."
Why did you choose a VW Beetle as the logo of your label?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "First of all I'm a big fan of old-timers. The Beetle used for that logo is an actual car. At this moment it's mine, but I've known it for about twenty years now. When I was still in high school, it belonged to an American who passed me in it every morning when I was walking to school. I really loved the car and vowed that I would buy it one day if the chance presented itself. Now when the war started in 2002, the United States recalled all their citizens from Ivory Coast. At that moment the American gave the car to the girl who did his cooking and cleaning, but because I'd already started negotiations with the American, she knew I was interested in the car and that's how I eventually got hold of it. At that time it was still completely yellow in colour; I added the red and the green patches afterwards."
Is it still in full working order?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Absolutely! It's the car I drive whenever I'm in Bamako."
A few months ago you gave your first concert in Ivory Coast in years. How did that go down?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "It was great! The people came in huge numbers to hear our message of reconciliation, peace and unity. For a lot of these people I'm a sort of spokesman and a symbol of courage. To regain entrance to the country, it would have been sufficient for me to have said that the current president in Ivory Coast was elected democratically. Instead, I refused and was obliged to live in exile for more than five years. It was a fantastic concert and the whole Ivorian press was unanimously positive, except for one newspaper, loyal to the regime in Abidjan, who criticized the event. But that's also what democracy is all about: everyone should have the right to express their opinion."
Did you sense a renewed feeling of hope among the Ivorian people?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "I rather sensed a fatigue; the people are tired of the war and want to reconcile. They feel betrayed by the false promises of the politicians. At this stage, I can't really talk of hope yet, because too many things are still going on, but the country is definitely on a path of reconciliation and the majority of the people really want peace."
On the album there's a triptych of songs ('Ou Aller Ou?', 'Ouvrez Les Frontières' and 'Africain à Paris', red.) all related to the situation of the political or economical refugees. What is your message for the young Africans who are on the verge of undertaking the often dangerous voyage to Europe?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "I would say that the place of these youngsters is really in Africa. No one will come and change Africa in our place. At the same time, I can fully relate to the hard realities they face. I've suffered the same illusions; a condition we call "la galère" ("the nightmare", red.) that you find yourself in when you leave school and end up in the street without a job. That is really the fault of the ruling elites who are only interested in power to maintain their own wealth and aren't bothered with finding solutions to fight poverty, let alone better the situation of these youths. These youngsters feel as if they are imprisoned in their own country. I wrote 'Ouvrez Les Frontières' ("open the borders", red.) to make clear that no matter what is going on in Africa, Africans should have the right to travel just like Europeans or Americans do. It's a question of human rights. Sadly the criteria for a successful life are western ones... having a big house, a fast car and other nonsense like that. Most African youths don't have the means to realise these dreams, so they decide to leave for Europe to try to build a life there. That situation really saddens me. Like I already mentioned, I've been in the same situation. I left school to dedicate all my time to my music, but if I wouldn't have had that, I would have been just another jobless young African living on the streets. In conclusion: I hardly want to encourage those who want to leave Africa, but I know where they're coming from."
The song 'Africain à Paris' ("an African in Paris", red.) talks about the African who finally arrives in Europe, only to find it's not the paradise he expected.
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "With that song I wanted to explain that Europe is not Eldorado and that the Africans who live in Europe don't necessarily tell their relatives in Africa the truth about their life here; that the touristic images they send home do not really reflect the realities an African living in Europe faces. With this song I wanted to make the youths in Africa think twice before taking the decision to leave for Europe. I vividly remember how shocked I was when I visited France for the first time and I was approached in the street by a white homeless guy. The image of the white man the colonial powers left behind in Africa was one of wealth and cleanliness. As a spokesperson it's my duty to speak the truth: "Brothers you have the right to travel, but do not expect everything to be a bed of roses."
Apart from the album there's now also a book called "Tiken Jah Fakoly - L'Afrique Ne Pleure Plus, Elle Parle" (Frédérique Briard, Editions Les Arènes, 2008, red.). Who came up with the idea to compile a book?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "The book was written by a French journalist (Frédérique Briard, red.) who followed me around for three years. She retraced my whole past from the small village where I was born (Odienné, red.) to the school I attended and the place where I had my first stage experience. We wanted to show the fans following my career today that Tiken Jah was no instant success. There's a whole history behind the successful singer that I am today. When she approached me with the idea I immediately loved it and did everything in my power to make her research as easy as possible. I gave her tons of old photographs to use and if you look in the book, you will clearly see how in the beginning of my career I was still looking for my own personal style. I didn't want to look or sound like Bob Marley or Alpha Blondy, and looking at the photos in the book, you will clearly notice my search for identity: in the beginning of my career I always performed shirtless and bare torso, for a clip I even wore a suit once and it's just the last few years that I started to perform dressed in a traditional African bubu. I want to be original, not a carbon copy."