(Reuters) – As darkness falls over Ivory Coast’s lagoon-side commercial capital a steady thumping cuts through the tropical night.
But where once the thud of heavy weapons set the Abidjan’s residents scrambling indoors for cover, tonight it is a reggae bass line that draws them out. Here, little over a year ago, supporters of then-president Laurent Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara were fighting a brief post-election civil war, the final deadly showdown of a decade-long political crisis.
After years teetering precariously between war and peace, the flames of division, xenophopia and anger – fanned in no small degree by some of the country’s most famous musicians – exploded into a conflict in which more than 3,000 people died.
One of Ivory Coast’s leading reggae artists, Serge Kassy, even rose to become a leader and organizer of Gbagbo’s Young Patriots street militia – a group accused of numerous atrocities during the war. Kassy is now in exile.
“When I looked at the musical scene in Ivory Coast, I realized that we ourselves went too far,” said Asalfo Traore of the zouglou band Magic System, one of the few groups that refused to take sides during the crisis years. “It was when everything was ruined that we wanted to glue the pieces back together. But it was too late.”
Now, long-divided musicians are once again coming together, hoping to use their influence, so destructive for so long, to help Ivory Coast heal its deep wounds, and the country’s leading rival reggae artists are showing the way.
The long feud between Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly is a thing of legend in the reggae world, though neither has been willing to say what was behind the bad blood. Both men come from Ivory Coast’s arid north and share a musical genre. But the similarities stop there. Alpha, considered the father of Ivorian reggae, takes the stage in Abidjan clad in a shimmering pink suit, golden tie and Panama hat of an urban dandy. Tiken wears the traditional flowing robes of his northern Malinke tribe.
During the crisis, Alpha remained in Ivory Coast, while Tiken, a vocal critic of President Gbagbo’s regime, went into exile in neighboring Mali. They had so successfully avoided each other during their long parallel careers that before he picked up the phone to approach Alpha with the idea of uniting for a series of peace concerts, Tiken claimed they’d met only twice. “Before going to the Ivorians to ask them to move towards reconciliation, it was important for us to show a major sign. That’s what we did,” Tiken told Reuters.
Out of a meeting in Paris was born a simple idea: six concerts in six towns across a country once split between a rebel north and government-held south, bringing together musicians from across the political spectrum to push for peace. “No one’s died over the problems between Tiken and me,” said Alpha. “There are things that are more serious than our little spats, our pride and our vanities.” Uniting the Ivorian music scene proved relatively easy in the end. Uniting the country could prove a tougher task.