Afropop’s Sean Barlow spoke with Ivoirian zouglou artist Soum Bill after his MASA 2016 performance in Abidjan. Soum Bill’s euphoric audience was mostly teenagers and 20-somethings who jumped up and danced and sang along to all his songs. Important to note as you read Soum Bill’s words here, his lyrics seem to focus largely on the central drama of the Cote d’Ivoire’s recent history–the destruction, dislocation and pain caused by the bloody and traumatic civil war in the Ivory Coast which culminated in a settlement in 2011. Soum Bill says that difficult repercussions continue to this day. Note also that the MASA festival had to be canceled during the civil war but now views its role as an important platform for healing between people.
Sean Barlow: Hello, Soum Bill, welcome to Afropop Worldwide. Afropop is an award-winning worldwide radio program and web site which is based in the United States. Over the past 27 years we’ve traveled all over Africa to meet veteran and emerging artists and to gather sound for our shows. International broadcast personality Georges Collinet from Cameroon is our host. You can listen to our program anytime anywhere on demand. So Soum, how about introducing yourself?
Soum Bill: Soum Bill is an Ivorian musical artist, who started his career since the ’90s, who excels in the genre called the zouglou. First album in ’92. He was part of one of the biggest zouglou groups, Les Salopards, which unfortunately does not exist anymore. So yeah, a musician, who has five albums to this day: five solo albums, three other albums with Les Salopards, then Les Garagistes, who have a 20-year career to this day. So that is the path of Soum Bill.
Interesting, so what was your first group?
The first group in the ’90s was called Les Garagistes. After Les Garagistes there was Les Salopards, a group who revolutionized the zouglou genre due to the committed lyrics, who talked about social facts. So we dropped three albums, and then I started my solo album.
For our American listeners who do not really know Ivorian music, what is zouglou?
Zouglou, etymologically means garbage, waste, society’s trash, so we translated that into music with tam-tam drums, and percussion. For the youth of the unprivileged neighborhoods it was a way to bring ambience in the neighborhoods. You did not have to go clubbing, it was with percussion and chants, to translate their problems, their daily fights, and then it came out of the neighborhoods, then it got to the college campuses. So students created dance moves to explain their daily issues. Once this finished, we saw young people who make this music. So during college parties, soccer games, chill evenings, even funerals, it was young Zouglous who hit the tam-tam drum and who sang. It is really what evolved today. We went in recording studios. This is the zouglou story.
The time zouglou began was in 1990, right ?
Was it revolutionary? Aggressive? Was it against people who kept power?
Yeah, already in 1990, the first group that came out was called Les Parents du Campus (Campus Parents). It was a college group. Les Parents du Campus described students’ problems, like, they did not have buses, they were 10 in campus rooms, they had problems to eat. Every college problem was described in their songs. Then the youth started from neighborhoods to neighborhoods to talk about the problems they faced. But it was only after my group that zouglou took a political engagement. To talk about power, power abuse, of this type of thing which nobody talked about. It was our engagement in the zouglou music, to denounce some social issues, some political abuse in our country.
Very good. It is necessary to have a way to express issues; music does not always talk about love.
Most definitely, we did not want to do zouglou just to do it. When we decided to do it, we wanted to have an engagement, see the youth, fast-foward in the future, think about our realities, and expose them to the public. Defend causes that we thought were right.
Very good. For your concert on Thursday at MASA please tell us the songs you will sing and what you talk about, and the universe around it.
The first song is called “Sêguê.” Sêguê in Bambara means suffering. It is a song that talks about hope, it tells people to stay strong no matter what. It was our introduction song. After “Sêguê” there was “Qui Saura.” “Qui Saura” talks about kids in misery. Kids in general. About inequalities that are getting deeper, today you have a lot of kids in the streets. A lot of kids who do not work. And on the other side you have a lot of buildings a lots of good things, a lot of cars, you have people who get richer in illegal ways in sight of people who do not have the minimum to live. After “Qui Saura,” we sang “Ahosse.” “Ahosse” is an anthem to work. It is said that work frees us, it makes us evolve, so it is an anthem to inspire the youth to not use the easy ways, to really work, no matter what you have to have a strong mind to resist. Inspire them to work. And then we sang “La Republique des Presidents” (The Presidents’ Republic) a song that I dropped in Ivory Coast at a time where there was presidential elections, in everybody’s logic the only way to exist was to be president. Everybody wanted to be a candidate, it was to believe as if the driver, the journalist or the musician, did not have a place in the society because everything people were interested about was having power and being president. So I said the republic has become the Republic of Presidents. Everybody wants to conquer. No matter what, by any means, by destroying and killing people. And when they are in power they want to stay by killing again. My thought was that we too had the right to live even if we were not in “power,” we as well had the right to exist. And then we sang “Who Does Not Want Peace?” “Who Does Not Want Peace” is a single that I dropped during the elections too. After everything that happened because we live in a time of post-electoral violence when there was a lot of deaths. So I came by my own means, I recorded it to tell everyone that even among tensions there was an Ivory Coast that we had to preserve. That we had the right to be free, to support who we wanted, but the most important is for this to happen without violence. It was distributed freely. And then I sang some songs off my upcoming album, that is called “Zizi Clegnon,” in our language zizi clegnon is the drummer, I say that the drummer cannot hit the drum and dance at the same time. So in “Zizi Clegnon” I speak of the political pole that was divided in two visions. You have pro-somebody, pro the other, you have two sides who want to tear Ivory Coast, who think that they have the universal knowledge, and that everybody that does not go with what they say is not intelligent. So I take both sides’ case and I tell each its flaws. Because we all have flaws, I go around ironically. This was caused by mass hysteria.
So I note that your terms are rough, with a lot of realities, but I also note that your audience at MASA was mostly teenagers and 20 somethings and there was a lot of joy and participation with singing along to your lyrics and dancing.
Yes, because sometimes in concerts–I try not to think about it–but I tell myself that people enter the reality and hearing what they think is a relief for them. We do not do a music to cry, it is called zouglou, it has rhythms, you can dance to it. But in it we try to bring a message. So you can find yourself in the message, and through the music, so yeah, it created emotional poles for the youth. It’s a pleasure, because it is a young generation who did not necessarily hear Les Salopards, the group I was in, but they find themselves in some stuff that continues to happen. It is a pleasure for me that the youth finds itself in this music.
In general, is your audience young?
I would say of every age, there are young people, some less young, because we started a long time ago, and we kept the same engagement and vision, so they know we are not there just to be there.
So Soum Bill, in West Africa you touch a francophone audience, Senegal, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, etc. Do you tour in West Africa?
Yes, I tour a lot in West Africa and also in Central Africa, in a lot of francophone countries. It has been this way for 10 years now. Even internationally, there are communities who get together, because within the songs there are love songs. I have a song called “L’un Pour l’Autre” [One For the Other]. That was a hit in West Africa. There is a little bit of every country in my concerts.
And you also said you had five albums?
Five solo albums. Before that we dropped three albums with my group Les Salopards. So yeah.
It’s a lot. Do you have some discs here?
Yes I do have some discs here.
Perfect. Can you choose three songs from your disc, the name of the disc first?
This is second-to-the-last album that I dropped. It’s called Escale. This one is 100 percent reggae, that I recorded with some friends at Paris. Terre des Hommes is my first album, you have “Gneze,” “Bledji,” “Hommage,” “Mondialisation,” which still speaks about issues. This right here is the single “Qui Ne Veut Pas la Paix” [Who Does Not Want Peace], that I was talking about. Featuring a Senegalese rapper, called Didier Awadi, with whom I am very close, Awadi and Smokey, who are mostly rappers but I find myself in the engagement, different styles but same fight.
Oh, so you invited Didier Awadi on this song?
Indeed, on the single called “Qui Ne Veut Pas la Paix. This right here is Que la Lumière Soit, my latest zouglou album at this time. You have “La Republique des Presidents,” “L’Aveugle et l’Edenté.” I talk about the diehard people who believe that it is either them or nobody else, who think that they know it all.
Do you start making your music based on a certain instrument? Are you learning an instrument now?
The first instrument for me is the percussion, every zouglou man must know how to play the percussion, percussion a bit, and then I also play the piano, and a little bit of guitar.
So for our listeners, like you said, zouglou changed from percussion, the songs do not only sing about bad stuff, maybe you can describe what is zouglou.
First, zouglou is percussion, at the rhythm it goes, [demonstrates] it’s a 4/4. Now you have two speeds, this was for calmer songs where you speak to people’s spirits, and you have the same groove but faster. When we play this, young people love it a lot. So it’s really those two main rhythms now, it is the only music from the four poles, from north to south, and from east to west where there are every instrument of about every people. You have the [demonstrates] this is a percussion that comes from the north for example, then you have some percussions that does [demonstrates] which is more from the south, and the west. Every time we play you have the greylou, things that were brought from the south, you have every influence in zouglou, that’s why it unites everybody, we say that it’s the music that represents Cote d’Ivoire’s identity. Here is a technical start point of zouglou.
Nice, It’s not only for the Sénoufos only for the Boualés or Bétés or the Gouros.
Yes, it is for everybody, that’s what is exciting and smart about this music. Every group which started, brought up an influence, before you played it with only 2 percussions [demonstrates], then you sang [demonstrates] and then other groups came, and added the dou doumba from the north [demonstrates]. It added up to another influence, others came up with greylou, another way of singing. There has been a lot of positive influence.
Very good, I love it, I can feel it. So you grew up in Abidjan?
Yes, I grew up in Abidjan but I was born in Aboisso in the south. My father is from the north, and my mother is from the south. So I grew up in that ethnic mix and I went to school in Abidjan.
It was very good to have an idea of the zouglou and your background, and it would be very precious to have an a cappella from you as a demonstration. Would do us that favor?
Yeah, of course. For example, my last song “Qui Ne Veut Pas la Paix” [demonstrates]. [A part of his demonstration of “Qui Ne Veut Pas La Paix” mentions] “How many more are going to cry? How many more are going to bleed? On top of our political hearts there is our country the Ivory Coast, on top of what can divide us there, our country the Ivory Coast. I want to help, and persist. Who doesn’t want peace is not my friend.”
During this crisis that I talked about, I lost my producer, whose house was bombed. So I came with the fear that things could degenerate. Then I tried to sing a song to make everybody acknowledge everything with lost during the war and that we can do better. It was distributed free, we played everywhere so that people understand the necessity of keeping peace.
So the crisis was between, Ouattara and Gbagbo?
Yeah, it is what led us to the crisis, unfortunately. I think that with everything we lost we had to acknowledge that the most important is not who supports who, but our country and we want to live no matter what.
So now after a lot of time do you think that Cote d’Ivoire is on the right path?
It is what we all hope. Today unfortunately in one party to another you have people who are amnesiac of power so it is something that can come at any time. It is a job that we have to do with time and all together. The population has to know that there are limits in everything. It is good to do politics but there are limits. So there is this fear due to what we saw and this traumatizing experience that people kept from what war really is. In Cote d’Ivoire we never saw that. But when you are held by politics and we know everything that interests politics is power so in five, 10 years, it is the same problems that they are going to put on the table. It is to the people to say no! Here are the limits. We won’t go there. We won’t follow you in stupidity.
Is there a zouglou community here in Cote d’Ivoire? Are there a lot of artists who get in the spotlight like you? Or even get identified as zouglou artists?
Yeah, there are a lot. Today around the world the most popular is Magic System. They are the most seen on an international level. But here, there are a lot of groups. Like I was explaining about the music, you have a lot of regions which have different styles, but it’s the same zouglou. This community is called “La Famille Zouglou,” the Zouglou Family, because from the start zouglou had a purpose to make the whole country function as a family. Because we all know that we came from nothing and we managed to have a spot under the sun because we believed in our music and that we helped each other. We have this important state of mind in zouglou. There are more than a hundred groups. There are young people who step up too. There is a big zouglou community.
The youth with a lot of ambitions.
You’re right. A lot of ambitions and they all have their styles. They also have their own codes [slang], that we do not always understand. Because zouglou is also a way of speaking. We had our way of speaking that others did not understand. We had codes, ways of speaking that also came from the colleges.
So what’s next for you?
Next… In two months there is the release of my sixth album, called Zougloumanity. Which means the zouglou who goes to meet humanity. We will use a lot of rhythms, have a lot of features, with people like Salif Keita for example. Anglophones too from Cameroon, to involve a good amount of artists. Now we are recording till the end of this month, and the album will be released in May.
Have you already invited Salif Keita?
We will meet soon, in Bamako. He is one of my idols, I saw him a lot of times here so I wanted to invite him on a song that we could share.