When I told a friend I was headed to the Ivory Coast, he responded with, “Get ready; you’re in for a culture shock.”
I shrugged off the comment, questioning what about this impoverished West African country could possibly be so startling. Sure, it’s no Italy or Australia, but Egypt was an eye-opener. I’m open-minded, adaptable to rugged conditions and unsavory situations. Though truly, nothing could have prepared me for this trip.
Cote d’Ivoire, as it is called in the country’s official French language, was set to become the Paris of Africa until a series of political coups lasting a decade left it in near ruin. The effects are evident in crumbling roads, minimal electricity and sewage systems, and no garbage system in most areas. Seeing kids happily playing among piles of trash; armed police road blocks; taking showers out of a bucket; and using a hole for a toilet, sans TP, was shocking and made me question why I’d chosen to spend my hard-earned vacation here.
If you are wondering why I came here, there are good reasons, the biggest of which is music. My boyfriend, Ryan, plays in local Afrobeat ensemble Afromotive. His band mate, Adama Dembele, is from Cote d’Ivoire. So when he traveled home to visit family and invited us to join him, we jumped at the opportunity to experience his hometown of Abobo, located just outside the country’s largest city, Abidjan.
Music to My Ears
Thunderous, drum-fueled polyrhythms and soaring, up-tempo vocals based on everyday life characterize West African music, which is deeply entrenched in the region’s history. Traditional songs and furiously energetic dances retell the past, and in effect, have fostered inter-clan and inter-religious respect. I found a sense of community here stronger than any I’ve experienced at home. These songs and dances are carried out at weddings (we got to witness several) and funerals, and with the influence of Western music, have given rise to an amalgamation of genres: highlife, makoussa, Afrobeat, and Afropop. Artists like Nigerian-born Fela Kuti, Baaba Maal from Senegal, Angelique Kidjo of Benin, and reggae star Alpha Blondy from Cote d’Ivoire are merely a speck of artists who’ve introduced the world to West African music.
I discovered the influence of this rich musical heritage to be widely prevalent, thumping in bars and nightclubs, emanating from marriages held on dusty streets, and drifting from homes throughout the city.
One such home is where Adama’s family lives. It’s more like a compound comprised of a main house and multiple shacks where relatives and guests (there were six of us from the states) stay in Spartan rooms. A large porch overlooking a ravine is where family, friends, and neighbors gather over meals and enjoy music, which comes easily to this family.
Adama and his oldest brother, Drahman, are 33rd-generation djembe players. They are masters of their instruments. Aside from playing music with Afromotive, Adama teaches drumming workshops stateside, while Dra mentors music students who travel here from across West Africa and the world. (Toubab Krewe, a popular band out of Asheville, honed their sound at this household.) Additionally, musician friends would drop by frequently, carrying exotic drums and instruments like the calabash (a gourd drum) and kamale ngoni (a lute-like instrument). It was a lively environment that fostered musical exploration.
Ryan, along with several others in our group, took daily drumming lessons, in addition to tinkering with other instruments. Me, I overdid myself in dance classes.
I’d been taking West African dance classes in Asheville in the months leading up to our trip. I keep a pretty regular exercise regime, and consider myself relatively fit. But dancing in 90-degree heat, under the supervision of my relentless teacher, who’s a professional choreographer, was humbling. The dance style is a very fast-paced, powerful, full-body aerobic workout—lyrical arms, frenzied stomping, jumps, dips, pumps, kicks—executed with grace and control. I’m not sure how well I pulled it off. There’s a good chance I may have looked like a gasping fish out of water. But all in all, it was fabulously challenging and fun.
Keeping the Beat
Daily classes aside, Ryan and I enjoyed the slower pace of life here. We whiled away plenty of hours on the porch reading, relaxing, and chatting up friends and family in our broken French. Most all our meals— dishes comprised of rice, sauce, and usually fish—were had here. We attended several weddings as guests of Dra, who often played at them, and a couple of performances by local dance troupes. We spent one day on the white sand beach of Grand Bassam, and plenty of evenings sampling the nightlife in various bars. The African Cup soccer tournament was going on while we were here, so another fun experience was simply watching a couple of games (unfortunately not live since they were played in Angola) and witnessing the excitement and spirit surrounding the sport.
One of my most memorable days came toward the end of our two weeks, when Adama had arranged for Ryan to conduct a recording session with Dra and friends on the porch. About 10 or so musicians showed up and crowded around the mic. And the boisterous commotion drew a throng of eager ears. A large assembly of kids came to listen in, while family and friends took repose in shaded entryways.
The crack of Dra’s djembe set the pace for the others who picked up the rhythm simultaneously. The music was vibrant, crisp, and also melodic, with the help of an electric guitar and kamale ngoni. Though this was quite possibly the first time the musicians had played together in a recording session, the handful of songs they performed was nearly flawless. I realized these songs are practically ingrained; they’ve been part of the community and way of life for generations. Like the kids who gathered to watch, these are tunes the musicians themselves likely heard as children. It was a culturally enriching moment to realize how timeless music is and the role it’s played in building community; one in which family extends beyond blood ties and embraces even visitors like myself.
In the end, I was happy to come home to hot showers, flushing toilets, and other luxuries we Westerners take for granted, but I still cried when I had to say goodbye to my African family.