fbpx → Skip to main content
The Pan African Music Magazine
©2024 PAM Magazine - Design by Trafik - Site by Moonshine - All rights reserved. IDOL MEDIA, a division of IDOL Group.
Link successfully copied
Could not copy link
“Lêkê”, music in sandals
© Camille Millerand, Équipe de Maracana en lêkê, Abidjan, 2021

“Lêkê”, music in sandals

In Ivory Coast, plastic sandals known as "lêkê" have become emblems of popular culture, worn by a number of artists who have made them their trademark. But the history of these sandals in Africa, and their relationship with musicians, goes back much further. Here's a look back at the destiny of this indispensable footwear.

Few objects have traversed the history of African music like plastic sandals. Known as “lêkê” in Ivory Coast, in the 2010s they became the emblem of the “People’s China”, as DJ Arafat’s fans called themselves, because they were, in the words of the late artist: “as numerous as the Chinese“. Back in the early 1990s, they were the shoes of student marches and the early days of zouglou. Today, rap stars have reappropriated them, and Gucci has come up with its own version. Here’s a look back at the history, in music and images, of Africa’s most famous sandals.

From Auvergne to Eritrea, an African story

The story begins in a village whose name probably means nothing to readers: “Les Sarraix” in the Puy-de-Dôme region of Auvergne, a rural, mountainous area in central France. It was here, in 1946, that Jean Dauphant, a cutlery maker by trade, faced a dilemma. He had just ordered several pallets of a new product that a salesman had sold him for wrapping the handles of his knives, a supposedly revolutionary plastic that turned out to be completely unsuited to the task: PVC. Not wanting to lose his investment, Jean Dauphant came up with the idea of using this soft plastic to replace leather sandals. First called “sarraizienne”, then “plastic – auvergne”, plastic sandals were born, but the product was met with very limited success at the time.

© Auvergne Region – General inventory of cultural heritage, ADAGP

Florian Vallée, who spent three years investigating these sandals to make his film “L’Odyssée de la Sandale en Plastique : le destin extraordinaire d’un objet ordinaire” (The Odyssey of the Plastic Sandal: the extraordinary destiny of an ordinary object), explains that it was through the intermediary of a French shopkeeper based in Dakar, also originally from Auvergne, that these sandals were exported to Africa, convinced that they could be a success there. But contrary to her hopes, the colonists were not interested in these shoes, preferring leather models. On the other hand, the local “affluent” adopted them as their own, finding them practical and suited to the climate. By the 1950s, they were the footwear of the local elite in Senegal.

By the end of the decade, the manufacturer Bata, already established on the continent and sensing the winds of independence blowing – and a new market opening up – decided to reproduce these shoes for wider distribution to Africans. In 1957, the shoes were promoted through music, with a song to the glory of this piece of plastic, recorded by the “grand master” of Congolese rumba who became the brand’s ambassador, Franco Luambo of O.K Jazz.

Throughout Africa, the Bata model became the shoe of the petty bourgeoisie, propelled by this promotion of one of the biggest stars of the time. But by the end of the 1970s, the elites were abandoning it for more bourgeois shoes, and Bata stopped producing them, as its factories could no longer compete with local producers. This marked the end of the brand’s empire on the continent.

Local production continues to grow, however, but the sandal lost its aura and became the shoe of the poor, except in Eritrea, where, during the 80s, it is the shoe of the fighters who make it from recycled tires on a clandestine production unit. The shoe is so popular among them that they are buried with it when they die in battle. After independence from Ethiopia, sandals became an Eritrean national emblem, celebrated in poems, frescoes and monuments.

At the same time as these plastic sandals were beating the mountains on the feet of combatants, it was at the other end of Africa, in Ivory Coast, that their musical history was forged.

Monument in Asmara, Eritrea, screenshot of Florian Vallée’s movie “The Odyssey of the Plastic Sandal”
Ivory Coast: lêkês, markets and the “People’s China”

In the 1980s, Monique Seka made a name for herself on stage wearing a model of plastic sandals with heels, still known today as “sekamania” in Ivory Coast, but it was not until the early 1990s that lêkê became the musical emblem of a new genre, zouglou. For Pat Sako, leader of the group Espoir 2000:

The lêkê is a shoe that, in the 1980s, was first and foremost the cheapest. It was made of rubber, so you could get it cheap. And in the 90s, when zouglou arrived, it became a fashion, and even Uncle Bouba [a famous Ivorian entertainer] had lêkê brands and all, so they associated this shoe with zouglou. That’s how the lêkê came to be associated with zouglou, and then people adopted it.”

As Didier Bilé, considered among the students behind zouglou as “Z1”, the first artist of the genre, explains, the movement quickly became popular in Abidjan’s slums from Yopougon to Anoumabo, from where the most famous artists of their generations would emerge: Les Salopards, Yodé & Siro, Espoir 2000 and Magic System. At the time, these young people wore lêkê for economic reasons, but transformed the sandals into a fashion statement. Even today, having become an international star, A’Salfo, leader of Magic System, proudly owns this heritage.

© A’Saflo in suit-lêkê, cover of Ivorian lifestyle magazine “Esprit”, 2021

In the 2000s, lêkê shoes also became politicized in Ivory Coast, as they became the footwear of the Great Patriotic Marches, a movement of young people who supported the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo in the face of armed rebellion. The lêkê can be seen on the feet of the movement’s leader, Charles Blé Goudé, a great fan of zouglou from which he borrowed the style. During his trial at the International Criminal Court, during which he was acquitted, he went to his hearing in… lêkê.

In the 2000s, the zouglou movement ran out of steam for a while with the immense success of coupé-décalé, whose early stars preferred to ostentatiously display JM Weston or Italian luxury shoes on their feet. But this was without taking into account the rise of the “Zeus of Africa”, one of the biggest stars in Ivory Coast and French-speaking Africa for almost a decade, DJ Arafat. A frequent visitor to the Rue Princesse and its DJ booths, sometimes sleeping on the floor, he wore these shoes like an emblem. The “People’s China”, his many fans have reappropriated them and wear them on all occasions. As one of them, seen in the Adjamé market with his lêkê worn over sports socks, tells us, “It’s in chokoya mode. What we call chokoya means you dress well, you wear socks. Instead of wearing crêpes [sebago shoes], you wear white socks and white lêkê. With tight jeans, it’s only the chain that’s missing to make Arafat.

© March of the “Chinese” following DJ Arafat’s passing

Faced with this craze for lêkê, manufacturers have developed new styles that differ in slight details such as the position of the buckles or the entanglement of the straps, but they keep the price very low, less than 1000 Fcfa (€1.50) a pair. They name the lêkê after celebrities: Boli, Drogba, Messi. Counterfeits also bear the logos of major streetwear brands, and the shoes come in a wide range of colors. Lêkê are worn to work, to play soccer and maracana, to flirt or to relax – each pair has its own purpose.

Today, the trend has not died down, and it’s the rappers who are reappropriating these shoes. Kiff No Beat, who almost single-handedly launched the Ivory rap craze in the early 2010s, chose gold lêkê shoes to highlight in one of their singles, “Gor La Montagne”, a tribute to one of the pioneers of the ziguéhi movement (the “big guns” of the 1990s).

Mosty, one of Ivory Coast’s new rap sensations, dedicated her first freestyle in 2020 to these shoes. As for celebrities, there are countless who wear lêkê, from Ivorian international footballer Didier Drogba to Congolese rumba star Fally Ipupa, perhaps as a tribute to his illustrious ancestor Franco Luambo? In any case, Fally Ipupa isn’t wearing the Bata model promoted by his predecessor, preferring a slightly more luxurious variation, lêkê produced by… Gucci. The price? 450€ (300,000 Fcfa).

Lêkê stand at the Adjamé market, @Leo Montaz, 2021