Ivory Coast, or Côte d'Ivoire, has emerged as one of the most technologically and economically advanced countries in West Africa. In this land of many peoples and traditionseven by West African standardsleaders resisted French colonialism fiercely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But after the nation's independence in 1960, President Félix Houphet-Boigny became one of France's most cooperative allies in the region during his 33-year rule. President Henri-Konan Bédié was elected in 1995, but the process was widely criticized as unfair, and the political stability the characterized the Houphet-Boigny era has been eroding since. Nevertheless, Ivory Coast has been and remains critical to the entire West African music industry.
The capital Abidjan offers recording studios, nightlife and a diverse cultural milieu from which many African artists, including Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Mone Bilé and Sam Mangwana, have launched global careers. Abidjan studios, principally the 32-track JBZ, provide the bulwark of the West African recording industry. Meanwhile, the bars of the poor Treichville quarter have nurtured a variety of Ivorian styles and artists. After independence, '60s artists like the harmonizing Soeurs Comroe warmed the public up for the fleet, driving gbegbe rhythms that became huge in the '70s when artists like Sery Simplice and the Frères Djatys used them to fashion modern pop.
The grande dame of Ivorian pop, Aïcha Koné, began her career secretly, to foil disapproving parents. But she became a star when she matched her elegance, versatility and full-throated alto with the keen pop instincts of West Africa's top arranger, Boncana Maiga. Aicha's varied recordings and classy stage show blend griot grandeur with polished takes on Ivorian rhythms and pop trends from soukous to zouglou, the youth music of the '90s.
The closest thing yet to a national Ivorian music style, zouglou takes its name from a communal dance and generally expresses the troubles and aspirations of students. Zouglou's top singer, Meiway, trades on style and sex appeal while constructing taut, dramatic arrangements that use rock guitar, soukous animation and gushing keyboards to show off his smooth, delicate tenor, often over the zoblazo rhythm. The father of Ivorian roots pop Ernesto Djedje popularized the fast ziglibithy rhythm in the '70s.
These days, Gnaoré Djimi carries on the roots tradition with his 14-piece polihet outfit. Polihet began as a girls' dance, but Gnaore and others have honed it to a smooth, high-tech 6/8 shuffle, with pummeling percussion breaks. A surprise group in the early '90s, Le Zagazougou uses accordion and percussion to pump out racing, giddy pop with a strong acoustic flavor. Ivorian stalwarts like Nyanka Bell and newcomers like the footballer/singer Gadji Celi stay on their toes to keep up with new developments in this dynamic musical hub.
Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org