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Interview: Tiken Jah Fakoly in Bamako, Mali part 1

Interview: Tiken Jah Fakoly in Bamako, Mali part 1

Interview: Tiken Jah Fakoly in Bamako, Mali part 1

By on - Photos by Valentin Zill - 4 comments

"They said we had Alpha Blondy and Bob Marley and that would be all"


Bamako, Quartier Cité des Enfants. When I reach the studio H. Camara, Tiken Jah Fakoly is sitting relaxed on the bumper of his VW Beetle, painted in the panafrican colors. The superstar from Côte d’Ivoire is in the best of mood. He asks me to take a seat next to him. In the uniquely atmospheric light of the late afternoon in Mali capital we talk about his career and his points of view concerning Ganja and Rastafari. The short interruptions when Tiken greets his fans passing by do not disturb us.

Tiken Jah Fakoly

Tiken Jah Fakoly, let’s start at the very beginning of your career. You teamed up with your first band, called the Djèlys, in 1987. What was your motivation to start doing music in the first place, what inspired you to do music?

My motivation was coming from African people suffering. I wanted to talk about that and I was trying to find a way to talk about that. When I listened to Bob Marley’s music and his message, to Burning Spear’s music and his message, for me that was the road to talk about this continent. When we formed this band in 1987, it was just after my father’s dead. We did the rehearsing at home for three years before we played the first show. We were in Odienné, far from Abidjan, and without radio and TV we couldn’t do anything.

How did you get to Abidjan?

I went to Abidjan in 1991. There was a music competition at the national TV station for upcoming artists that I wanted to win. I went there and lost. But I didn’t want to return to Odienné with nothing, as most everybody there thought I would win anyway. So I recorded a tape in a small studio and went back home to sing playback shows in night clubs. Even those who hadn’t believed in me were confident now. We did our first show in April 1991 in Odienné’s cinema. A lot of people came to watch our show. We received a lot of encouragement.

Whenever I had some leisure time, I did my rehearsals in secret, as I couldn’t tell my family I was still into music

Which obstacles did you have to overcome at the beginning of your career?

Getting started was very, very difficult for me as I’m coming from a Muslim family. Many people here think that Muslims shouldn’t sing, as that would hinder them from entering paradise. But I wanted to sing. So when my family forbid me to do so, I asked them what else I should do, as I definitely couldn’t go back to school. After my father’s death in 1987, we couldn’t afford tuition fees. My older brother wanted me to become a trader. He gave me some start-up money. I bought eggs in Côte d’Ivoire and sold them in Guinea Conakry to buy other goods I then sold back at home. I did that for three years, till 1999. But at the same time, whenever I had some leisure time, I did my rehearsals in secret, as I couldn’t tell my family I was still into music. I didn’t want to discuss with them.

Did you adopt the Rastafari faith at some point of your career?

No, not really. I never saw a real Rastaman in Odienné, I couldn’t talk to any. And, you know, I didn’t like people who smoke Ganja. I wanted to do Reggae music without smoking Ganja. Reggae music was important to me because of its message. So I told myself I didn’t need to smoke Ganja to say what I wanted to say. I read some books about Rasta and realized some people saw it as a religion, but I already had my religion – I was Muslim. I pray in the mosque, not at Nyahbinghis. For me, Rasta is a movement fighting against injustice, fighting against slavery and colonialism, fighting to teach African history. But I have nothing against Ganja smokers, sometimes I smoke it myself! But I don’t want to promote it. It’s too easy for politicians to denounce Ganja smokers, telling people not to listen to what they have to say. I never smoke outside of my home, and never in front of young people. I don’t want to encourage the youth to smoke herb, I want to tell them to go to school and to work hard to develop our continent. And I don’t want to talk about Ganja. Many artists sing Ganja love songs. I-man a warrior, I fight, and there are not enough artists out there fighting.

It’s too easy for politicians to denounce Ganja smokers, telling people not to listen to what they have to say

Would you compare yourself to Lucky Dube, who said: "If Rastafarianism is about having dreadlocks, smoking marijuana and believing that Haile Selassie is God, then I am not Rastafarian. But if it is about political, social and personal consciousness, then, yes, I am"?

Yeah. You know, African societies are different from the Jamaican one. It’s not easy to talk about Ganja here. Ganja is not a bad thing in Jamaica, but over here your parents really don’t want you to smoke it. African parents think Ganja will drive you crazy. So I respect Lucky Dube’s point of view. We Africans living in Africa need the Rasta movement but we need to protect our culture and society.

Was there ever a moment in your career where you thought about quitting the music business?

No, never. Never ever! Music is my life, mon. Reggae music is my life. Reggae music is my arm. I’m fighting with it. Sometimes people ask me if I’d think about stopping to talk about politicians because it’s dangerous. No. Reggae music is the voice of the majority of Africa’s people. We have to do our revolution, we have to fight. So this music is very important for us, it’s important for me. You know, most African music is about dancing and bigging up the big bosses. Our mission is to wake up the African people. I will never give up! I’d rather die than stop doing music.

I-man a warrior, I fight, and there are not enough artists out there fighting

Did you received support from other Reggae artists at the beginning of the road you took?

No. I asked Alpha Blondy to help me, but he didn’t do it. I asked other Ivorian singers like Waby Spider, but nobody wanted to help me. They didn’t believe in me. They said we had Alpha Blondy and Bob Marley and that would be all. Even in my family, when they finally accepted that I was a singer, one of my cousins told me if I wanted to be like Alpha Blondy, I had to go to the US to learn and study English like Alpha did. But I’ve always been a warrior. I wanted to be were I am today. I spent my small money to organize shows. When I heard about anything going on innah di town, I went there and begged to sing, even if I didn’t get a penny in return. No artists helped me, but some white men who worked in Odienné supported me. They heard me sing and when they went back to Paris, they invited me to their wedding and decided to help me after that. They organized my first show in Europe in a small club in Paris. We did the show in front of about a hundred people, half of them were journalists. So I got featured in big newspapers.

These white men you’re talking about are Sophie and Thierry Gros.

Sophie Gros and her husband, yeah. He was my friend for about three years when Sophie came to Odienné to visit her brother and met her future husband. Tiken Jah FakolyThey support me until today. Her husband was my manager at first. He’s a maths teacher. In 1997, Sophie became my manager. I’m very proud as it’s not easy to find people you trust for this job. We are like a family today. We share a beautiful history. They were surprised to see how famous I was in Côte d’Ivoire when they saw one of my concerts in a stadium. Nobody knew me in France at that time. Sophie and Thierry recorded one of these shows on video and sent the tape to labels in Europe. We waited for their answers for about three months. One morning, we were surprised by a letter from a small label called Globe Music that was interested in what I did. It was a big party this day!

What was the first album you recorded that was released in Europe?

Mangercratie was the first album released in Europe. It was my third album in Côte d’Ivoire. Its recording quality was much better than that of my first two albums. We started touring small clubs in France then with the French Reggae band Sinsemilia. After the small clubs, I did a show in La Boule Noire. 500 people showed up the first night, and 500 again the second night. The next step was Elysée Montmartre, with about 1,800 people attending the show. After that, people began to know me. I got my first gold CD for 'Françafrique' in 2002. Today I have three gold CDs.

Today you’re one of rather few Reggae artists with a major label contract. You’re a superstar of international recognition now. How does your family think about you being a singer now?

They are very happy today. Everybody is happy in my family. One day I saw my elder brother’s business card, the one who didn’t want me to sing. It read “DOUMBIA Alassane FAKOLY”. He’s really proud of me now. But I can still understand their objections. They thought I wouldn’t be a good Muslim when being an artist, I would drink alcohol and smoke Ganja. They just wanted to protect me.

What was the most memorable story you experienced?

The craziest thing was when I did this small show in Odienné. Most people in the audience told me I wouldn’t go anywhere as there are Alpha Blondy and Bob Marley. One or two years after I released 'Mangercratie', I went back to Odienné for a big show of the national radio station of Côte d’Ivoire. Big promotion, you know. 35,000 people showed up in the stadium. I recognized people in the audience who had told me at that small show that I’d never make it. They were really enjoying my show now, dancing and singing with me. That was a very important day for me, I’ll never forget it.

Read part 2 of this interview where Tiken Jah Fakoly talks about his musical influences, his new album 'African Revolution' and his experiences in working with Sly & Robbie.

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Read comments (4)

Posted by Alexandre Cruzz on 10.29.2010
Respect for Tiken Jah...Salvador- Bahia- Brazil I love your song...Fyah!!!

Posted by jose maria bernabeu on 10.29.2010
Esta entrevista es muy interesante;gracias a ella conozco más la vida de TIKEN. Estuve un mes en Bamako,donde vive Tiken; invitado por un amigo maliense. Tiken para los africanos es casi un Dios,para mí es un gran artista y un ser humano extraordinario.

Posted by mermoz kouassi on 01.03.2011
J'adore ta franchise.
J'aime la music reggae exclusivement ton style de reggae.
Comme tu peux le constater je suis ivoirien d'origine.

Posted by LIZA P.welsh on 10.05.2015
Tiken you're an extraordinary human being. I really admire how you defend the whole continent of Africa. Tiken I agree that Africa needs to be free, but real freedom cannot come from one man or a president. The only one who could liberate Africa is Jesus Christ. Even a man with the best intentions could not do that. We need a higher being, and that's is our Father in the heavens who could do that. Jesus came to liberate us from all types of captivity. Immoral captivity, drup captivity, political captivity etc. We need to get to know i his word the bible, and try to get to know him. In Isaiah 61: 1 it says, " The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me'; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; " This is for those who are bound not only physically, but also spiritually. So therefore Mr. Fakoly you need to get to know this God in order for you to truly liberate the people of Africa. I know that God is using you to do this mission, but you need to let him guide you.

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