If you’ve ever been to Babi – Abidjan’s nickname – you must have crossed paths with the one and only Black Charles, dj/beatmaker, artistic director, co-founder and resident of La Sunday, the phenomenal event that shakes the Ivorian capital. A true citizen of the world, Charles was born in Brazil, lived his formative years in the U.S. and returned home to Ivory Coast in 2011, after a stint in Egypt among other places.
Since childhood he has been immersed in sound, thanks to his father, a music-loving diplomat with a solid record collection, full of soul, funk and r&b classics, along with Brazilian music like samba and bossa nova. Charles then discovered zouglou, zoblazo and the birth of Ivorian hip-hop during a stay in Babi in the early 90s. Arriving in New York in 1995, at the height of East Coast-West Coast rivalry, young Charles – then a high school student – caught the virus, began rapping and set up a collective that made a name for itself with mixtapes. “At that time, I lived for hip-hop. I did my university thesis on Tupak Shakur and his commitment to civil rights.” Always in search of original sounds, he experimented with production, digging for loops from the gold mine that was his father’s crates. This thirst for novelty pushed him to explore the underground scene, in hip-hop at first, with references such as J-Dilla or Nujabes, and slowly sliding towards the depths of deep house.
Charles returned to Babi with the ambition of making a career in a label. Things did not necessarily pan out as planned. A discussion with the late François Konian, founder of Radio JAM, a legend who had worked with all the best Ivorian musicians, would set the record straight. “The old man completely schooled me (laughs). He said, ‘Shut up, I’m talking, you’re listening. You’re talented, you’re passionate and everything, but basically you only have two options. Either you start as a studio rat, make coffee, learn as you go and we’ll see where this takes you… Or you train to become a reference, the go-to specialist in a specific area.’ It was a wake up call. I started DJing from this point on. I would go to parties, analyze other DJs’ sets and think about how I would have done it differently. I started mixing in small bars, like Casting in Le Vallon, but everything took off for me when I joined Bao, as a resident. This spot was a real hub of the underground in Abidjan, where the scene was otherwise dominated by coupé décalé.“
After his father’s passing, Charles swapped the turntables for a suit and tie at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs… without really enjoying it. It is at this period that he met Jeune Lio, Fayçal and Aziz, his associates of La Sunday. The event just started as a party between friends, at the tiny Dozo concept store, but it grew exponentially, to become one of Ivory Coast‘s biggest parties. A real social phenomenon. At the same time, an electro scene was finding its roots, more discreetly, with parties like Bassline, which made him realize that it was possible to push these sounds in Abidjan.
“I lost both my parents quite early and quite brutally. It has always had an impact on the way I lead my career, without compromise. I consider myself an underground artist, a selecta that plays beyond the mainstream. Today, I play mainly house music – knowing that there is so much African house music – with the challenge of bringing Ivorians to feel and get down to this sound.”
Zimbabwe – Bob Marley
Bob is the very first artist I heard. There was always something in his music that spoke to me. In New York, I fell in love with reggae. This song is also super committed to pan-Africanism and the Black cause, it was great to have that connection to the Continent. His message is very convincing and inspires me. It’s a bit like “Yes We Can” but the African version. On a side note, Bob died on May 11, and I was born on the same date two years later.
Hi-Life – Wally Badarou
This track speaks is music to my beatmaker’s ears. Musically, Wally was so far ahead of his time. The slightly syncopated rhythmic, his use of synths are super avant-garde, fusing African sounds into it. There is a richness in the composition, it is really electro before its time, with a strong African touch. I love it.
Zopio Dance – NST Cophie
For me, NST Cophie was the Ivorian artist of the 90s par excellence! He had created the zogoda style. The guy had crazy charisma. He was all the time dressed in red and black, hair gel on. He had a real artistic direction both musically and visually. I especially like the double synth line and the chorus. The arrangement is crazy and I think this song was also very much ahead of its time. The song is timeless, and it’s in my all-time Top 3.
Zorap – Meiway
Meiway is a genius. He is the boss of zoblazo, the sound of the South of Bassam, with that big band atmosphere and all. One thing that speaks to me here is the innovative use of the arpeggiator with the synth, which brings a crazy harmony. But that’s not all. With this track, he masterfully introduces a rap approach to zoblazo. That was completely new. I mean, really, in terms of composition this track is incredible.
Soul Makossa – Manu Dibango
Well, I had to include Manu, the legend. For me this is the quintessential African song. All the soul of makossa that is expressed here, it speaks to you even if there aren’t many words. This piece is the ultimate song, it draws from all the sauces from the four corners of the Continent. It’s as if one found the whole essence of African music here. It includes the richness and diversity of the Continent. When you listen to Soul Makossa, you inevitably feel African. It’s quite impressive for a jazzman to achieve something like that. But when you know that he worked on it with Quincy Jones, you understand why the music stands out.
Gentleman – Fela Kuti
I could have chosen so many Fela songs, but I took this one for its sick intro (laughs). The composition builds up very slowly. Fela lets the music breathe, and at one point it’s like he’s having a conversation with his saxophone. And then the rest of the band comes in and creates such a strong swing, it’s almost orgasmic!
Chameleon – Herbie Hancock
My passion for Herbie dates back to my New York days. One of my buddies, his father, was a collector and every Sunday we used to hang out at his place and listen to records. Hancock was also ahead of his time. He was one of the pioneers to go all out with synthesizers. He’s a very strong innovator. The intro and bass line on “Chameleon” are super dope. He helped sharpen my ear and made me want to push the boundaries of sound.
Shalaï – Extra Musica
With this song, you are listening to Roga Roga, the genius guitar player. Nobody can match the swing of Congolese guitar players. It’s not even possible. Automatically, your body starts to dance even if you don’t know anything about it. The vocals are also beautiful, the arrangements and the harmony are so strong. It evokes childhood memories. At the Hotel Ivoire there were afternoon jams where kids could go. We all practiced ndombolo dances. When this song played, it was a total explosion! The video clip is crazy, a kind of Congolese kitsch version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video.
Kibuisa Mpimpa – Werrason
I discovered this track a little bit by chance. I had seen a video of a Werrason casting where Sarah Solo, an Ivorian guitarist, makes an ultra dope rendering of this song. In fact, the sound starts in a very traditional Central African mode, then ndombolo vibrations gradually enters, with the guitar of Flamme Kapaya, who is just incredible. The whole orchestration is great. There is actually a video of a live performance of this song in Kinshasa and the guitarist goes down on the lawn and the stadium blows up. That whole scene gives me goosebumps.
Djessimidjeka – Dj Arafat
I could not have made a list without including coupé décalé, even if those who know me know that I am not the biggest fan of this music. But Arafat (RIP) is also a legend, one of the greatest artists that our country has known. He created a movement that is strong and which lasts despite his tragic passing. The intro of this track is crazy. We dropped that sound at La Sunday, and the crowd was singing along from start to finish. That song had to be on my list. I am clearly not the best coupé décalé dancer, but when Djessimidjeka drops, it takes over me. Much respect is also due to the late Douk Saga, who launched the whole movement.
Yeke Yeke – Mory Kante
I have a preference for guitarists, but Mory is a korist. One of the grand masters of this art. On this song, the fusion between traditional and contemporary music is magnificent. The harmony between his polyphonic kora lines and the brass instruments is an emblematic piece of the 90’s on the Continent. You couldn’t grow up in Africa at that time and not have heard it.
Sene Kela – Raoul K
In my musical reconversion, I focus mainly on house music and Raoul K is both a brother and an inspiration. For me, he is one of the DJs, like Boddhi Satva, who are redefining African electronic music. This is one of the most complete and perfectly composed electro tracks. When I met Raoul in Abidjan, he explained the composition of the song in a master class. I was like a kid in a candy store. His presentation morphed into a jam session, it was a total riot. This is exactly how I see African electronic music: a fusion between tradition and modernity.