Vitale - Mon Mex A Moi
Hey, here is Vitale again, singing most of her own song, and it’s not the only example she released in 2013. This is not just a reclamation of her African Beyoncé tag, this is Vitale responding to Coupé Décalé’s lack of ideas by realigning her sound towards America.
This isn’t a complaint. By doing this she has given her music a structure which moves her on but still allows her to sound Ivorian. The Coupé Décalé beat is undeniable, and the second half is Arafat-light, but it’s given a sense of purpose with a generous dusting of American r n b. Vitale is taking Coupé Décalé away from the dance floor towards a wider audience, which begs the question why this did not happen earlier.
Except it did, just not in Cote d’Ivoire.
Numerica - Vas-y Molo
West African was well represented at The Pop World Cup with Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon joining Cote d’Ivoire in the tussle for pop supremacy. Each of those countries field amazing tracks largely constructed over their local rhythms but also owing a huge debt, in terms of texture and look, to American r n b or hip hop. In contrast the Ivorian Coupé-Décalé I was trialling was the odd one out, doing its own thing, seemingly untethered to a globalised pop sound.
And then, in the Round of 16, Cameroon fielded Numerica. This was the Coupé-Décalé beat run through a different part of the drum machine, with a slick layer of synths gleaming over the top. Arafat this was not. And this is not a new trend. Since its earliest years Coupé-Décalé has spread from Cape Verde to Togo and beyond, where it could mix freely with outside influences.
In contrast, according to Pitchfork, Coupé-Décalé in Cote d’Ivoire developed in relative isolation. The civil war ran from 2002 to 2007, against which Coupé-Décalé developed as an act of mass diversion. “Post-traumatic stress rap” is how Pitchfork pitches it, developed by a population forced to look inward. American musical culture didn’t stand a chance.
Cano (feat DJ Arafat and Serge Benyaud) - Décalé Ambience
Now, after another civil war has passed and having fully exploring the possibilities of the dense, bludgeoning sound, Ivorian Coupé-Décalé has started embracing wider musical influences. This means the inevitable reach of American music is now being felt, but it will take a while for these new influences to settle.
Some, like Vitale, have done a great job of merging their existing sound with American influences, but when it is handled badly, you get this track by Cano. I don’t know anything about Cano but we’ve heard plenty of Arafat and Serge Benyaud this week and here they sound pretty awful. Arafat sounds like he’s phoning it in while Benyaud sounds like he has been produced into a smooth, disconnected automaton. I blame the slickness of the track, preventing it from embracing the grit of Ivorian Coupé-Décalé, something which Vitale above, on the other hand incorporates seemlessly.
It will be interesting to see how far the Americanisation of Coupé-Décalé will go within Cote d’Ivoire over the next twelve months or so, but based on the evidence here Vitale works, while Cano, Arafat and Benyaud do not.
Serge Benyaud - Kababléké
”…we’ve had some trouble hearing more fresh tunes in this swag-heavy, rhythm-driven, dance-party-inducing style. From our far-off vantage point, the scene seemed to have dried up a bit.”
The quote above is from an article published in Afropop Worldwide in December 18 last year, about the time I started looking into the music of Cote d’Ivoire. Sometime in 2013 the DJ Arafat Sound had reached its creative dead-end and Coupé-Décalé was at a cross-roads. In this my timing could not have been better. I’ve been privileged hear how the Coupé-Décalé community has strived to move forward. No two artists have taken the same path, and not all paths have led anywhere interesting, but overall Coupé-Décalé is currently displaying a wave of creativity. We’ll finish our look at Coupé-Décalé over the next few posts by looking at the best of these artists.
Afropop’s champion pathfinder is Serge Benyaud. On Kababléké it’s easy to hear why with its space and lightness of touch: a little guitar, some accordion chords and soft vocal harmonies. Even those Coupé-Décalé beats are delicate and sound naturalistic despite never quite losing the robotic pulse. The song even has disctinct verses and a chorus. Here is everything missing from Coupé-Décalé over the previous five years reborn for the digital era. Even the autotune is handled lightly.
The only thing which hasn’t changed is the lack of depth in the lyrics. Indeed, Kababléké is a rare case in which I had lyrics which Google helpfully translated from the French, give or take some Abidjan street slang variations and words from local languages.
"My Coupé-Offset confirms ho,
It’s not me fault ho, these
God gave me hey
Across Africa, we dance my Coupé-Offset ho, ho Beynaud.
All children dances, danced moms, dads dances. My Coupé-Offset the dates given, it is not complicated-man. This is actually danced
Kababéléké mabringamabringé Show me how you dance, watch how you move”
Benyaud is stating his self-confidence in his vocal acrobatics while encouraging movement on the dance floor. It’s the Ivorian version of “Raise your hands in the air”. With Serge Benyuad it is all about the dance.
Serge Benyaud - Corrigé Corrigé
Serge Benyaud had his own dance troupe, a talented group of mostly women but some men who appear in most of his videos. Just look at them: such poise; such timing. From video to video they groove, somehow shaking limbs and bottoms with each snap of off-kilter snare while their heads and bodies are becalmed. It would be like dancing to drum n bass, moving to the cymbal trills and dropped beat rather than the underlying four-four rhythm. Or at least that’s how I want to move to drum n bass, though I could never hold the rest of my body with such dignity.
Musically, things on Corrigé Corrigé are more complex than Kababléké: there’s a lot going on. But it feels like he is trying something new with the music. It’s in the soft synth chords and how the different levels of loops interlock or drop away during the verses. This dexterity allows the song to turn on a sixpence for a bridging verse halfway through: you couldn’t change tack so easily with the Arafat momentum thundering through.
Coupé-Décalé Clash: Debordo v DJ Mix
Here is Debordo, resplendent in his reversed black cap, leering towards DJ Mix and his complicated t-shirt. They are fighting it out freestyle. It’s braggadocio at five paces. After a lot of chat and leering (on a longer version of this video, since pulled), each takes turns singing while the other creates a beat on a bottle. Much like jazz, each singer sometimes falls back on stock phrases - by this time in my research I recognised snatches of lyrics and tunes from the official music clips of each artist.
Is this the musical equivalent of wrestling: showmanship with a pre-determined result? Is it battle rap from the dawn of hip-hop? Are there any element of the hip-hop feuds of the 90s? Certainly the feud between Arafat and Debordo included accusations poisoning and jealousy. Was it all these things? Such freestyle battles proliferate on Youtube. They are recorded on shaky cameras and are sometimes of shaky sound but they continue to give the scene a heartbeat. But these networks of battling MCs also feed back into studio tracks and their attendant video clips though an interplay of guest appearances.
DJ Arafat feat DJ Mix - Samuel Eto’o
Here is DJ Mix in 2012, a guest vocalist to DJ Arafat. Together they are celebrating the footballer Samuel Eto’o. Elsewhere Bebi Philip and Roland La Binguiste trade guest appearances, Vitale faces off against Kedjevara, Serge Beynaud features DJ Mix, and so on all the way back to the original pre-split pairing of DJ Arafat and Debordo in the late Noughties. And from all of this interaction I could only conclude the increasingly complex, cut-up music produce by the likes of Arafat is an arms race to create music to challenge these vocalists, to push them further, to raise the odds. It has led to some exhilerating music within Coupé-Décalé over the last five years.
But like all such music arms races, especially one leading towards increased complexity in the music, the only outcome is an eventual creative dead-end.
Jet Set - La Jet
Here is my short history of Coupé-Décalé 2002 to 2009, in three tracks:
Coupé-Décalé was born around 2002/3. Like the modern version it was still masculine but more in the sense of the rich and powerful, than unprovoked assaults: expensive suits, flashy smiles and fast cars.
Arafat feat DJ Debordo - Kpango
So there I was, searching for Ivorian music to play in the Pop World Cup and everything I found in those early days was either by DJ Arafat or sounded like DJ Arafat. I had three group games to play and needed to find at least two tracks which did not sound like DJ Arafat. I cast my net wider.
I thought I had found a breakthrough when I discovered the BBC’s DJ Edu had run a segment on his show called the Pop African Cup of Music, run in parallel to the footballing version. I was excited: I could do some cribbing. But then I discovered most of the Ivorian tracks he chose were by Arafat. And most of these Arafat tracks were the same tracks I kept stumbling across.
But one Arafat track selected, a duet with someone called Debordo, which was different. Kpangor was more joyous, softer, bouncier and more organic than any other Arafat track I had come across. It was also earlier, released in 2008 when Arafat has far less hair and sung at a higher-pitch. Debordo and Arafat trading vocals - actually singing vocals - was a Coupé-Décalé I found I enjoyed.
It was clear Coupé-Décalé had evolved considerably in it’s history. I found myself obsessing about how this swinging version became a hard-edged dancefloor filler. So leaving Debordo as a thread to be picked up later, I decided I had to go back through the history of Coupé-Décalé and find out what happened.
Vitale - Krekete
Coupé-Décalé had some very basic elements. Let Vitale be our guide.
Most Coupé-Décalé from the last few years begin with a false start which doesn’t give any indication of what is to come. In some cases this false start may take up the first 90 seconds of a four-minute track. Some artists go for the inspiring, gospelic vocal harmonies; others some extended village drumming. Vitale starts slow and bluesy in torch song mode. Whichever way they start most tracks instilled a false sense of security in the unwary listener.
At which point the bludgeoning begins.
Let’s unpick this aural assault by looking at the rhythm section. The Coupé-Décalé drum pattern is as every bit as ubiquitous as the drum n bass break beat, and like drum n bass there’s a certain flexibility to add or drop beats around the main pattern. Where it diverges from something like drum n bass is the bass which often disappears into the mix, at least by the evidence of my armchair listening. I do wonder how the bass sounds from a good speaker stack in a packed nightclub.
Above the rhythm track comes sampled adornment: maybe some guitar (either something typically West African or heavy rock riffing depending on the artist); maybe some synth noodling; even an accordion or organ may get thrown into the mix. Whatever they choose is looped and densely layered, added, subtracted and added in turn over the beat to give the song its textural momentum.
Finally we get the vocals, often dominated by guttural guys grunting scraps of lyrics, even when the main MC is a Vitale or Claire Bahi. Vitale, known as the African Beyoncé no less, relegates herself here to the only verse on the entire track otherwise dominated by shards of male vocals. Her spoken interludes are treated as another sample layered carefully on top of the mix.
This is the dominant sound of Coupé-Décalé over the last five years or so. It should be noted DJ Arafat, the major influence on this sound, is first and foremost a nightclub DJ. Coupé-Décalé is dance music, and a popular one at that. I cannot not even begin to imagine how the crowd of dancers react to this runaway train of a musical genre, except to think it must be exhilarating in the moment; mind, body shaken to the core.
DJ Arafat - Ketebo
I started my quest into the music of Cote d’Ivoire with its most popular music genre: Coupé-Décalé. My initial experiences were akin to being bludgeoned over the head.
I found unrelenting beats smothered in cut-ups of traditional instruments, synth lines and vocal grunts. The vocals hardly seemed lyrical, reduced to guttural utterances crashing through the mix. These tracks were dance floor bangers with the emphasis on the bang. If the Go! Team had decided to turn their hands to drum n bass I might have gotten something as saturated and driving as this.
DJ Arafat is Coupé-Décalé’s best known bludgeoner. His music over the last five years has been muscular, masculine, dominating and he hasn’t been the only one. A quick check of related videos suggests his sound defined the genre between 2009 and 2013. Just listen to artists such as Claire Bahi or DJ Leo with their own dense, overloaded thumpers.
I have to admit it took me ages to get my head around Coupé-Décalé, I couldn’t think of any other country whose most popular pop music was this extreme. I tried my hardest to choose something else for the Pop World Cup but such was Coupé-Décalé’s dominance in recent years I initially found no obvious alternative.
This left me with only one course of action: take Coupé-Décalé apart to see how it worked.
Hi. My name is Garry McKenzie, sometime music writer, radio producer and presenter from Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a bit disappointed with Google Maps. Back in the day if I asked for directions from Brisbane to Abidjan Google Maps would send me driving across Australia, ask me to paddle a kayak to East Africa, and finally send me on another long drive to the other side of that continent. Checking now, it seems Google Maps has discovered something called an airplane, which could have me in the largest city of Côte d’Ivoire in 27 hours.
Which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, though that’s hardly Abidjan’s fault.
A year ago I couldn’t even spell Abidjan, let alone Côte d’Ivoire. If someone asked me about the country I would have mentioned footballers Didier Drogba and Toures various, plus the fact that, like Brazil and my own Australia, it moved its capital city to the middle of nowhere. I had heard one album of Ivorian music, but that was hip hop as curated by DJ /rupture, so it was hardly indicative of the country’s musical tastes. All this changed late last year when I was asked to manage Côte d’Ivoire in Freaky Trigger’s Pop World Cup.
The Pop World Cup is run every four years in parallel to the footballing version. It takes the same 32 countries but competes with beats rather than balls, with the fancy footwork kept strictly on the dance floor. This is country versus country via r’n’b, cumbia, reggaetron, crazy electronica or whatever else constitutes local popular music, with obvious artists often being marked down by the judges. The idea is to get out and explore.
Last December I joined the other 31 managers in scouring Youtube and Soundcloud to select tracks to represent my adopted country. The only stipulation was the music had to be released since the last World Cup in 2010.
My search for Ivorian music threw up two immediate challenges. Firstly I do not understand Parisian French let alone the street slang of Abidjan. And even though Google Translate was there to help there was a lack of available lyrics. The main French word I learned was ‘paroles’, which means lyrics.
My other challenge was recent history. Côte d’Ivoire suffered a civil war over 2010-11 which had a profound affect on the local music scene, to the point some musicians fled the country.
Undeterred I dug deep and eventually came up with a strong line-up for the Pop World Cup. But I’m not going to dwell on the competition as it is best experienced via this Scorecard which contains links too all the games.
Instead this week I’m going to write about what I learned from several months obsessing about a four-year slab of Abidjan hop-hop, reggae and the competing juggernauts of Zouglou and Coupé-Décalé.
I must add I cannot claim expert knowledge but I’ll try to give you a basic primer to the music which has been putting Cote d’Ivoire on the map.