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PAM presents new film: Tiken Jah, the descendant of Fakoly

PAM’s latest documentary stars one of Africa’s reggae heroes. 30 years after his first album, Tiken Jah Fakoly opens the doors of his club in Bamako, and his countryside farm for an alternative look at the legendary reggaeman.

When I look at the sky, the earth, the trees… how beautiful it is, how we humans were made, how beautiful we are, when I look at how magnificent nature is, how it works, how the bees go to gather the flowers to make honey… When I see this whole system I say to myself: God is strong. I sing of his strength and the beauty of all his creatures, and for me, you don’t need a religion to see that God exists, because he created all that… the guy’s strong!” Tiken Jah Fakoly confided in 2022, at the time of the release of his album Braquage de pouvoir. The reggaeman, who has lived in Bamako since 2003, has built his own little paradise a few dozen kilometers away from the city, following the road to the Guinean border. Around him, peacocks, a deer and sheep roam freely. “For us Rastas, I think [the animals] are beings who aren’t very far from us, so they deserve respect and consideration,” he explains as he feeds them. Jessie Nottola’s documentary reveals another side of Tiken Jah, less well-known than that of the reggae star who tours the world’s stages. A Tiken Jah who, when he leaves Bamako, becomes, as he says in the film, “Moussa Doumbia (his real name) in the wild“. The savannah landscapes remind him of Gbeleban, his father’s village where he grew up, in northern Côte D’Ivoire, just a stone’s throw from the Guinean border. In fact, it was not far from there, in Odienné, that he began his career… already a fighter. For when you come from so far away, breaking through in Abidjan is a real struggle.

Odienné-Abidjan: the beginnings of the descendant

The young Moussa was just twenty years old before producing his first cassette, Djely. It would take him a good five years, during which he worked in all manner of roles in Odienné as well as in Abidjan. Singer at times, but also gbaka’s apprentice – the man who, on board the collective mini-buses, collects the fare and at each stop shouts out the final destination to attract customers. He also organized his own concerts, jumping aboard a peace caravan touring artists all over the country, stealing the show from pop stars to the point where some tried to have him shot. Some time later, he and his group, les djelys, were spotted at the Marlboro Rockin’ contest, which opened the door to television. And then, when “Djeli”, his first cassette, finally came out, he still had to grease the palms of a good number of radio hosts who imposed “their customs fee”, with rare exceptions.

But then, Houphouët-Boigny, the father of the nation, the man we’d seen on TV every day since TV existed in Côte d’Ivoire, left for the land of his ancestors in December 1993. The nation was in mourning, starting with the radio, which played nothing but funeral music. It wasn’t easy in these conditions to promote an album that had just been released. So, the following year, Tiken and the Djelys released Missiri, their second album. The singer remembers that, at the time, on the road between Abidjan and Bouaké, he would sell his cassettes, sometimes on credit, and on his return would collect the price. Sometimes you have to be inventive and flexible when it comes to music marketing.

It was the turn of 1995, and the political situation in Côte d’Ivoire was tense, caught up in the succession conflicts that had followed the death of Houphouët, and which for almost 20 years would lead the country into the wall. But few could see that far ahead. Tiken, on the other hand, witnessed and chronicled the situation, and it was after the election of Henri Konan Bédié in 1995 that he released the album that was to make him explode in Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring countries: Mangercratie (1996).

Go tell the politicians to take our names off their business,
We’ve got it all figured out.
They use us like camels, in conditions we deplore,
They take us on boat trips to destinations we don’t know.
They start the fire, and then they come and play fireman,
We’ve got it all figured out

“Mangercratie” – Tiken Jah Fakoly (Mangercratie – 1996)

The song may have universal appeal, but in the Ivorian context, it has a particular resonance: Bédié was elected, but at the cost of tinkering that marred his election, from which he managed to exclude one of his rivals, Alassane Ouattara, Houphouët’s former prime minister. Ivoirité, a political concept that seeks to distinguish between true Ivorians and those of “circumstance”, forged by a group of intellectuals close to Bédié, was born of these battles of succession for the presidential chair. And criticism of this highly inflammable concept would soon be at the heart of Tiken Jah’s songs. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, for while Mangercratie stands out for its jabs at party politics, a constant feature of Fakoly’s work, the reminder of his Mandingo roots is also featured, establishing one of his other favorite themes that would reappear throughout his discography.

Big-mouthed Fakoly

The history of the Mandingo (the vast region which, after the 13th century, would extend over much of West Africa) is dear to Tiken Jah’s heart. The epic of its founding hero, Soundiata Keita, embodies the fundamental values of a culture and civilization, defining the social roles and joking kinship relations (sanankuya) that guarantee peace between the great families, but also between the peoples living in this vast territory. In the epic sung by the griots eight centuries after Soundiata, the name Fakoly has a special place. “My ancestor played a great role in the liberation of the Mandingo people,” says Tiken Jah in the documentary, “which is why we (the Fakoly family) are considered great men in Mandingo.

The reggaeman is not exaggerating: traditionally, Fakoly koumba, fakoly daaba (fakoly with a big mouth, Fakoly with a big head) was the nephew of Soumahoro Kanté, who had subdued the kingdoms of the region and whom Soundiata was going to fight. Fakoly rebelled against his uncle, who had kidnapped his wife, and joined Soundiata’s troops, throwing his weight behind the final victory.  As you can see, Fakoly is not just anyone, just like the Camara, Kouyaté, Traoré and Cissé families, all of whom have their place in this fabulous story.  This rootedness in a region and its traditions is important to the singer, who recalls the Fakoly genealogy in the song “Le descendant” (performed live in the documentary) and also devotes a song, “Soundiata”, to the Mandingo emperor in his next album, aptly named “Cours d’Histoire” (1999), as well as in “Alloumayé” a little later.

I am the descendant of Fakoly,
I don’t know where I’m going, but I know where I come from

“Le descendant” – Tiken Jah Fakoly (Mangercratie – 1996)

In Siby, where he goes to rest, his farm looks out over the Kamandjan arch, a gaping hole in the cliff, which legend has it was pierced by the fist of Kamandjan Camara, king of Siby and companion of Soundiata. Tiken Jah, who feels he is “a true Malinké”, has decided to put down roots in this historic region, and his repeated references to the glorious epic are a reminder that before colonization, Africa had its own history, its own kingdoms and sovereigns, its own treasures of civilization. After a century of brainwashing, it’s important to remind all those who continue to suffer from an inferiority complex. This Fakoly, like his epic ancestor, does have a big mouth, and he continues to open it to point out the evils of our time.

War and peace

The struggles to make his voice heard in his youth were followed by all the political and social battles that concern Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire in particular. For the album Cours d’Histoire also referred to the current situation in his country, where politicians’ manipulation of history is about to plunge into chaos. “Nationalité” is a response to Ivorian and xenophobic rhetoric, and reminds us that Côte d’Ivoire is made up of peoples who all, one day or another, came from elsewhere, before its borders and name were ratified by French colonization in 1893. “So,” he continues in the song, “all those whose ancestors were born after that date are Ivorians. Stop the partisan blah-blah to avoid jeopardizing national unity“. Nor was he entirely without friends when he denounced the ambitions of General Robert Guei, who, after deposing Bédié on December 24 1999, decided to run in the October 2000 elections. This call to order took the “Santa Claus in fatigues” at his word, as he inserted the audio archive of his speech on taking power, in which the general said he had “come to sweep the house” and did not want to remain in power forever. He lost the election and was swept out, as the singer recalled in the song “Le balayeur balayé” the following year (2001, on the album Françafrique).

In 2002, Tiken’s earlier stance led to him being targeted by the death squads that were combing Abidjan in response to the armed rebellion from the north of the country. They shot and killed a number of prominent figures from the region (such as Camara H), as well as a number of anonymous individuals supposedly sympathetic to the rebellion. Tiken narrowly escaped. But not General Guei, who was assassinated in Abidjan. The no-nonsense rasta went into exile in Bamako. And there’s no shortage of critiques: Françafrique, neo-colonization, leaders clinging to power, debt and corruption. “Big moughted Fakoly”, who shares many causes with the Survie association, even dares to mention the names of certain current leaders on the album Coup de Gueule (2004), as in the song “L’Afrique doit du fric” (“Déby’s dedications, Sassou’s dirty money, Bongo’s gombos, Sirven’s bribes….”). ). He also raises the problem of refugees driven out by war, denouncing the closing of borders to Africans, or the persistence of the darker sides of certain traditions (“No to excision”), as well as the exploitation by pastors and imams of the name of God to make a fortune, and more recently, by those who kill in the name of religion (“Religion”, on his latest album Braquage de Pouvoir) or use it to send children begging in the streets (see the documentary).  We can’t say it all here, the list is too long – as are his albums, and the infinite struggle.

From Bamako, where he opened his “Radio Libre” club, he toured the world and, on the continent, committed himself to building schools on a simple principle: one concert, one school. In other words, the profits from a single concert are used to finance a school. There’s plenty to be tired of. But the reggaeman maintains himself through sport, and his faith in Africa keeps his flame burning. Indeed, when peace gradually returned to Côte d’Ivoire in 2012, he decided to stay on in Mali, which in turn was plunged into a political and military crisis. “To resist,” he says, “with the Malians“, now that the divorce with the former colonial power has been finalized.

Now a grandfather with a whitened beard, he enters this stage carrying a pilgrim’s staff, like a patriarch. One thinks of Moses. Of course, Tiken’s civil status is Moussa (the name given by Muslims to this Old Testament figure). In 2022, recalling his early days, he told us: “Back then, I had no room for wisdom. You had to fight and get out of the ghetto, but now I’m calmer… I’m 54 and I say things in a different way than when I was 20 or 25“. But his rhetoric hasn’t waned, and neither has his energy on stage: you had to see him running, and even dancing, on stage at the Olympia on October 14. That’s why we invite you to meet him at his home, where he’s just Moussa Doumbia, to measure the distance he’s covered, and perhaps conclude as we have: even if the fight goes on, warriors also need rest. All the better to carry on the fight.