Ivory Coast in the 1960s and 1970s was undergoing a cultural and economic explosion. At the end of the 1950s, the country was the richest colony in French West Africa, thanks to its production of coca and coffee, grown by a multitude of small planters. Music at that time came from elsewhere, French variety being the most popular genre, closely followed by Ghanaian high life and Congolese rumba. But following independence, artists in Abidjan started to develop a particular style of urban music which eventually took hold right across Africa, turning the Ivorian capital into a continental crossroads in the 1970s.
On 7 August 1960, the young Amédée Pierre performed his first concert, at avenue 3 in Treichville, a neighbourhood of Abidjan. Having sung French variety tunes for several years, this key figure of the Ivorian music scene decided to rebel against the former colonial power and started composing in the Bété language. "When the Dope [nightingale] sings, the people stay listening until the early hours of the morning,"
he declared. In a single evening, Amédée Pierre won over his audience and banished the memory of the Congolese Rico Jazz group which had taken Abidjan by storm three months previously.
His band Ivoiro Star regularly sent audiences wild at the Oasis du Désert bar where they performed. Over the following years he recorded hundreds of records which were huge popular successes. In just a few years, Amédée Pierre had become the "olêyê", or forerunner, opening the way to a whole new generation of Ivorian artists.
Other bands, such as Yapi René’s Yapi-Jazz band, Anouma Brou Felix’s Ivoiris Band, Bouaké’s OFI, or the Conseil de l’Entente founded in 1962 by the guitarist Mamadou Doumbia, followed the same trajectory. They stopped singing in French or Spanish, and composed their lyrics in the Bété or Dioula languages, commonly spoken in Ivory Coast.
Mamadou Doumbia, always impeccably fitted out with a bowler hat, became one of the cornerstones of modern Ivorian music. In 1963 he recorded his first song in Dioula, entitled "
Destiny is a slate you can write on and rub out"
Mamadou Doumbia’s own destiny would be to breathe new life into Ivorian music. During the same period, the Sœurs Comoé, twin sisters, brought women fully into the era of urban music. Their incredible story opened the way for other female singers who came to the fore in the 1970s, such as Aïcha Koné.
In 1968, James Brown came to Africa for the first time. He gave a private concert for President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. This "
, in the words of Eburnea, an Ivorian monthly magazine, influenced not only music but also fashion across the entire country.
At the same time, global coca prices were soaring, boosting not only the country’s economy but also its political scene, urban development, fashion and music. Côte d’Ivoire had visions of grandeur, and Abidjan was the favoured hotspot for musicians across the African continent.
The Malian Boncana Maïga, eking out a living in Bamako, moved to Abidjan in 1974, while the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango was called on to lead the new orchestra of the Ivorian TV and radio broadcast organization. He remained in Ivory Coast for four years and regularly arranged material from the new generation of Ivorian musicians, such as François Lougah or Ernesto Djédjé, who were heavily influenced by their predecessors.
Ernesto Djédjé was nurtured by Amédée Pierre, and led his banc Ivoiro Star from 1965 to 1968. He went on to invent the revolutionary ‘ziglibithy’ genre – a blend of Bété rhythms, along with funk and soul – before eventually falling out with his erstwhile mentor. He visited France and Nigeria where he discovered Fela Kuti’s afro-beat. In fact it was in Lagos that he recorded his first album in 1977, entitled Zibotè, a musical manifesto that perfectly reflected the times. Ziglibithy – along with its provocative inventor – was a huge success.
Bailly Spinto, "the singer with a thousand and one octaves", was considered by Amédée Pierre as a "son". In 1979, his languorous Taxi Signon sold between 30,000 and 40,000 copies. François Lougah, Séry Simplice and the gifted arranger Jimmy Hiacynthe, among others, recorded some of the greatest Ivorian music during this period in the late 1970s.
In the early eighties, Ernesto Djédjé died at the age of 35, poisoned in mysterious circumstances. At around this time the price of coca went into freefall, driving the whole of the Ivorian economy into a downward spiral. And yet, the cultural "miracle" seemed to continue. In 1982 Alpha Blondy recorded Brigadier Sabari, a track which denounced police violence and which was a hit across the world, opening up yet another, more international chapter in the history of Ivorian music.