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Paris c'est l'Afrique: The Pioneers (episode 1)

The documentary series Paris c’est l’Afrique by Philippe Conrath has resurfaced from oblivion. As of today, PAM will share a weekly dose of the cult film via our YouTube channel. Episode 1: “The Pioneers”.

It is truly a remarkable documentation. Sending you back to a time, when the French capital Paris was both the bridge for African music in the West, and the crossroads at which most of the continent’s artists would pass through (Mainly French-speaking, but not limited to).

From Fela to Alpha Blondy via Youssou N’Dour, Johnny Clegg, Pierre Akendengué, Manu Dibango, Ray Lema, Papa Wemba, Toure Kunda, Salif Keita, Kante Manfila, Doudou N’Diaye Rose… Almost all of the greats feature here on screen, thirty years younger, at a time when their careers were flourishing. The passage of time has made these images even more moving, and all the more interesting given that we now know how much the music and its authors have evolved since.

Let’s take it back to the beginning, to 1988. Journalist Philippe Conrath, who since 1982 has been chronicling Black music for the daily Libération newspaper, is in the process of leaving the newspaper, when he is asked to write and direct this very series of documentary movies. A true godsend for him who has been able to observe closely the rise in importance of this music, at a time when the “world music” term hasn’t been coined yet. Regardless, these artists have already found their rightful place and a certain popularity. It’s in Paris that the phenomenon begins to takes hold. This is how Johnny Clegg recalls it, in the opening of the first episode, “The Pioneers”. The South African artist owes much of his major success to French audiences. In turn, this becomes a much discussed theme, and Conrath interviews all the artists on their relationship to the very peculiar place that is Paris. Those who go there to develop their career, those who choose to settle there, and those who decide against all odds to stay at home in Africa, despite the difficulties (including Fela, also featured in this first episode). Conrath and his small team even have enough financial resources to go back and forth between Paris and some of the African countries whose French capital has, in a way, become an overseas embassy.

A film with curse? 

In the course of a year, they accumulate footage in Paris, Bamako, Kinshasa, Lagos, Libreville and Dakar. A long-lasting job which was due to be broadcast on the French national TV channel FR3 at the end of 1988. But the programmed slot in which this series was scheduled for was cut before the end of editing. However, the film was delivered to the channel, but remained mothballed. It was in January 1989, during a strike from all French national broadcasters, that someone used the film to “fill in” the empty slots. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and one of the director’s friends informs him of the news, enraged that such great work is being broadcast on the sly, almost clandestinely. Nevertheless, Conrath continues his mission in highlighting African artists by any other means: at the end of the same year in 1989, he founded the Africolor festival, which he would go on to direct for over 25 years. And it’s on occasion of Africolor’s 30th anniversary that the festival team finally began to reconstruct its history, and to research this ill-fated film.

Philippe Conrath erased the work from his memory, out of disappointment in having seen it ignored, “like the bottom of the shoe”, as the Ivorians say. The film was found on Betamax cassette, and immediately processed to digital. With a fresh new screening at home, the director is blown away: “Some of them are dead now, others are still alive, and it’s fascinating to see them again, and in particular for me to understand that this is the music that made my whole life. Also, the artists’ speech reflects deep thoughts, which might help in explaining life today. And then, to be able to see the energy of Femi Kuti at just 25-years-old during a rehearsal, while his father had just turned 50, is mythical.”

London-Paris-Lagos: meeting Fela 

Fela in fact, was one of the pioneers in the emergence of African music in Europe, even in only passing through Paris where his managers resided (in 1987, Francis Kertekian). This is what he comes to explain in this first episode where you can see – in addition to Femi – a very young Seun at only five years old at the time, already blowing into a sax. The director wanted the interview with Fela so much that he decided to travel for the first time to the frantic and chaotic megalopolis from which the father of Afrobeat drew his inspiration: Lagos.

The two men had already met before, during an encounter that is certainly worth re-telling.

Philippe Conrath: “I went to London to watch him perform, just a few days before he continued his tour in Paris. In the piece I wrote for [the newspaper] Libération, I slated his performance: during that tour, he invited a kind of magician with him on stage, who would perform for half an hour. Later, he explained to me that as he had just come out of prison, his hand was hurting. As he couldn’t play for extended periods, he had trouble holding the stage and invited the magician along so he could take a break during the show. When Fela arrived in France, his manager Francis Kertekian translated the article for him (Fela had insisted that he did not just summarize it, but translate it in full).

Then Kertekian contacted me to let me know that Fela wanted to meet me. I went to see his show in Paris at L’Élysée Montmartre venue. Fela played for three hours… and there was no magician there this time!” After the concert, I met him backstage and he said to me with a very menacing tone: ‘Meet me at the hotel tomorrow morning!’ When I got there, he asked me to take my shoes off. Then he told Femi to grab a paper and a pencil, and draw the outline of my foot. And there Fela said: ‘When we meet again, you will have the same shoes as mine.’ The following year, he called me to tell me that he was in Paris. And he offered me a pair of shoes, similar to his own. So when I finally met him in Lagos, there was already a collusion between us.

At his home, there was a tree with several sheets of paper hanging from it. I asked him:
– What’s with the paper sheets?
– A bible merchant came here… I thought these should be used for something.
Fela had torn off the pages and hung them in the tree.
– This way, we have a direct link to God.”

“What can you give me for one beer?”

“– I would like to interview you, I told him.
How much is your offer?
– One beer!
– One beer? Are you kidding me? American TV just came by and offered me $1,000 for an interview!

He took me into the room where he presides like a village chief. This is where everyone comes to see him and ask him for anything and everything… he would sit there, in his underpants of course, a huge joint between his lips. I was high too. The two other guys in my film crew were getting impatient, they were paid to shoot and thought we were just wasting time.

After a while, Fela said to the other people in the room:
– You know who this white man is? He came to interview me, but he won’t pay me.
Collective disapproval.
– He offered me a beer, to me, Fela! What the heck? But for the sake of Danielle Mitterrand – whose foundation had worked for the liberation of Fela –, and also for Libération – who had also supported him –, I will agree to give a free interview to this asshole.

Then he says, ‘Let me change my pants!’ and left. He returned almost an hour later, with a new pair of underpants, and eventually gave me a short interview. Fela was a really funny person, he was above par. An incredible guy who, although had taken real risks, kept a strong sense of humor.”

You can now see the exclusive part of the documentary featuring Father Kuti and his two sons together at the same time. In Episode 1 – “The Pioneers”, you also see Johnny Clegg; the dean-like Manu Dibango who recounts his professional debut as a musician in Paris; Pierre Akendengué returning to his country in Libreville after spending twenty years in France; and also Hilarion Nguema (with his colorful song “Conjoncture”); not forgetting Les Têtes Brûlées in Dibango’s living room, the latter praising the band’s creative talent, in being capable of transforming tradition by making the round trip “between the village and the moon», as he put it. An episode that, much like the following, immerses us in a common history that links the West, and in particular France, to African cultures, at precisely the time when the latter began to impose itself. Whilst the film was still being edited, Mory Kanté’s hit “Yeke Yeke” met huge success in Europe and would hold the top of the charts for a long time, as if to further shine a light on the power of this series, which PAM is pleased and honored to present to you, 31 years after its first discreet broadcast (courtesy of the director).