If you have ever listened to the major French public radio station, France Inter, you can’t have missed “L’Afrique enchantée” (Enchanted Africa) produced and presented, for more than ten years, by two extraordinary guys, Soro Solo and Vladimir Cagnolari. Every weekend, they enchanted radio waves with a one-hour broadcast dedicated to African culture, music, politics and social matters. Their success was so huge that, in addition to the radio program, they decided to launch a great ball – which can last two to…seven hours! – in which they cleverly manage to mix music, dance, songs, linked to the history of Africa, and especially its topical multiple realities.
Le Printemps des Poètes festival, which will take place in March on the theme “Africa(s),” will be sponsored by Soro Solo, who will present a special “poetic” version of his “Enchanted Africa’s Ball” with Vladimir Cagnolari and their team. I asked Solo a few questions about him, Africa, France, culture, and of course poetry.
Hello Solo. You were born in Ivory Coast. You lived and worked there as a journalist until the early 2000s. You and your family were threatened and you chose France as place of destination. Can you tell me more about this experience?
I produced and presented, on Radio Côte d’Ivoire, from 1999 to 2002, an interactive broadcast called “Le Gognon” (The Grump), during which citizens called to complain about the dysfunctions and embezzlements that paralyzed public services in Ivory Coast. They could speak about the many abuses they were witnesses of, about racketeering organized by the Police and Gendarmerie, etc… I would advise them about the legal texts which could help them to file a civil suit and initiate judicial proceedings to obtain redress. My civic action brought the wrath of civil servants and the ones in power.
In September 2002, a huge political and civil crisis in Ivory Coast disrupted everything, and initiated the birth of occult armed forces called “Escadrons de la mort” (Death squads). They would kidnap people at night, particularly people opposing, even allegedly, the regime, to kill them.
My two cousins, Seydou and Lanzeni Cloulibaly, were executed by the Gendarmerie in Williasville Graveyard, Abidjan, at 2:30 PM on October the 18th, 2002, five minutes after I left them. I received death threats on the phone… A young man, whose name was Souleymane Coulibaly, the same as mine, was shot shortly after. I understood I was undoubtedly on the “death squad” list elaborated by Laurent Gbagbo’s regime. In January 2003, I quietly left Ivory Coast to seek asylum in France, which granted it.
In France you worked for several media and finally created a radio program with Vladimir, “L’Afrique enchantée,” which lasted more than ten years (it has now become “L‘Afrique en solo”). Can you explain its genesis and how it developed into one of France’s main broadcasts dedicated to African culture?
When Vladimir Cagnolari came to Abidjan in 2001, to produce a report about Africa for RFI (Radio France Internationale), we simply sympathized. And we told each other that we would launch a radio broadcast together. When I learned I was granted refugee status in 2003, which meant I could work in France, we started to think about the kind of broadcast we wanted to produce.
We realized that citizens in former French colonies had good knowledge of French culture, society, history, literature, politics… but that, in contrast, French people didn’t know anything about Africa. The main recurrent images about Africa are those of poverty, dictators, AIDS, and whatnot...
Vladimir and I thought that we could introduce this continent to the French people and show them that there were not only duffers, poor, people relying on welfare incomes, or wars everywhere.
We realized with Vladimir that, in Africa, music tackles many topics of society. So we chose to talk about this continent and its 54 States through music, and to show how western culture - and especially Greek thought - had been fueled by the knowledge of ancient African Black scholars (cf. “Black man of the Nile and his family” by Yosef Ben-Jochannan).
You told me a few weeks ago about the great importance of vernacular languages in Ivory Coast and especially about “Nouchi,” which is street-poetry. Please share with us your knowledge of this amazing oral subculture.
Nouchi is indeed a language created on the streets by young people who felt the need to chat without being understood by adults. Indeed, it must be noted that, between thefts, gang stories and flings, youngsters had a lot of stories to hide.
The name of this exclusively urban language was inspired by sword-and-sandal films and above all American westerns. Boys had noticed that, in these movies and Indian ones, the bad tough guy inevitably wore big sideburns and a big moustache. The word “moustache” in Dioula -Western Africa’s vehicular language- is divided in two: “Nou” (nose) and “Chi” (hairs), literally meaning “hairs of the nose.”
So, in the end, all the thugs in town would start having a moustache and be assimilated with the tough guys seen on screen. Nouchi, in the end, means “thug,” and its vocabulary is a mix of French, English, local languages, and a lot of metaphors.
For instance: When you are going to a party, you will say “Je vais m’enjailler” (“I’m going to enjaille myself”), which comes from “enjoy” in English. When you serve someone a small quantity of food, your guest may say “c’est tchèrè,” a mix of French and Senoufo. When someone faces troubles, he will say he is “en dra,” which derives from French phrase “être dans de sales draps (to be in soiled sheets).”
Nouchi vocabulary never stops evolving. music styles like Zouglou or Coupé décalé use Nouchi to describe the dream and hell it is to live in big towns.
Ivorian poetry is famous for the works of Bernard Dadié (who will be 101 years old in 2017), who was Minister of Culture in the late 70s and the 80s, but who above all became part of its movement for independence in the 60s, with Félix Houphouët-Boigny (one of his poems was also featured in Spielberg’s Amistad to reminisce and evoke slavery and (neo-)colonialism). Do you think poetry is fundamentally linked to rebellion?
Poetry is fundamentally linked to rebellion and resistance. There was a strong sense of poetry in the songs of our “cousins” from America which, by metaphors and images, precisely indicated the path to freedom. The pattern of some songs, which only slaves could understand and which announced an “underground railroad” departure, was extremely poetic. Closer to us, the work of Nigerian artist Anikulapo Kuti (also known as Fela Kuti, ndlr) was absolutely devoted to raise awareness about African barbarian politics, about how people behave like “colonized,” about the SYSTEM. If this is not poetry, it sounds really like…
The new generation of Ivorian poets is, in France, mostly known for its female authors, Tanella Boni and Véronique Tadjo*. Do you think there is a growing recognition of female poets (and artists) in Africa and in France?
It is true that, since Bernard Dadié, Zadi Zaourou, Jean-Marie Adiafi…, the most famous poets from Ivory Coast are women, and especially Tanella Boni and Veronique Tadjo, who are definitely the most prolific. Their writing traveled a lot through Africa and through the world (Boni lives in France and Tadjo in England). They revive our legends, they review our wickedness and sing our beauties.
They are intellectuals who escaped from the university bubble to look at our world with human eyes. They deserve their recognition, like all the other poetesses from Ivory Coast and abroad. I would like to mention Monique Bessomo, poet and activist who created the Ligue of Solidarity of Disabled Women in Cameroon. I also really like young Somali-British poetess Warsan Shire, whose writings defend female destiny.
On March 19, with Vladimir Cagnolari, “Niece Hortense” and a dozen musicians, singers and dancers, you will set the Cabaret Sauvage, a great Parisian scene, on fire for the end of Le Printemps des Poètes. On this occasion we asked you to choose a few poems that you and your accomplices will recite on stage. How did you choose the texts and do you think it adds an extra touch of soul to the Ball?
To be in tune with poetry and the festival, we chose poems that had been sung by African orchestras, poems which are linked to our myths, and also some fables written by la Fontaine! I think it is a good thing that we add poetry to the ball’s menu, and that we propose something new and different to our audience.