30 years since Brigadier Sabari
Alpha Blondy’s seminal hit
Viewed as the song that spawned African reggae, Brigadier Sabari came to light three decades ago in an Abidjan studio on Alpha Blondy’s first album. We look back on the story behind a ground-breaking song and the album that featured it, Jah Glory.
A police siren starts off the record and sets the scene: “You shouldn’t walk round at night if your papers aren’t in order,” go the lyrics to Brigadier Sabari. It’s the story of a night raid organized by the forces of order in the streets of Abidjan, and a young man who stands up to the men in uniform, confident he is right, and ends up “folded like a parachute” in the back of a van. “Sorry, Brigadier,” begs Alpha Blondy.
At the time, Côte d’Ivoire was still under a one-party system, and commercialising contentious songs was a risky business. Georges Benson, the album’s producer and a national TV figure, was wary of the authorities’ reaction, but gave in under the artist’s insistence. No question, though, of making it the flagship track on his first LP. The wording “includes Bintou Were Were” printed on the back of the cover clearly shows that the focus was intentionally directed elsewhere. But the singer’s funny tale of his calamities with the police struck a chord with the public. “To my great surprise, I wasn’t the only one who’d been in that situation. That’s what made Brigadier Sabari a hit: all those people who’d felt the truncheon’s blow could identify with the song.”
Other factors played a crucial role: “Ivoirians realised that you could sing reggae in an African language. And I don’t sing the “sterilised” Dioula they speak in Abidjan, it’s the local dialect of my grandmother. I wrote like she used to speak. So the proverbs I say touch old people, and those living in villages in the heartland….”
The recording was wrapped up in a day and the mixing went just as swiftly. The sessions took place at the JBZ studio, named after its owner, Jacques Bozillon, a Frenchman who came to live in Côte d’Ivoire as a child. Armed with a mobile sound system, he started off DJing dances and parties and then went on to open a record shop at Hôtel Ivoire, before founding the first studio in Abidjan in the Cocody neighbourhood in 1982. The place became an institution of African music, extending beyond Côte d’Ivoire. Over a thousand artists passed through there in the space of three decades. The eight-track console had to be arranged to fit in all the instruments; the sound engineers worked wonders. Alpha was aware of the stakes for his future career and religiously rehearsed with his musicians before turning up for the recording.
For his first TV appearance in 1981, he chose an acoustic interpretation of Papa Bakoye accompanied by the guitarist Eugène Afri Lue, a member of the Ivoirian Radio Television orchestra, instead of the Ghanaian crew he had worked with to put together the demos on a simple ghetto blaster. A few months later, the singing hopeful was invited to perform on the talent show Première chance – “A penalty I couldn’t miss,” he now says. This time, it was the house musicians, used to playing pop and completely unfamiliar with reggae, who had to play the four tracks scheduled on the live programme: The End, Bintou Were Were, Dounougnan and a cover of Christopher Colombus by the Jamaican Burning Spear. “But because I was an oddity, they didn’t want to accompany me,” remembers the artist. A bribe of 59,000 CFA Francs taken from the account of his journalist pal Fulgence Kassy quickly helped them change their minds!
The reggaeman hired the same musicians for his album. Some of them, like Georges Kouakou, stayed in the team for years. One of the three backing singers – Bibie – went on to leave her own mark. The young Ghanaian, who was in Abidjan to try her luck in the trade, made a name for herself in France in 1985 with Tout doucement. Pierre Houon, a musician and sound engineer’s assistant at JBZ (and father of the coupé décalé sensation, DJ Arafat) used his keyboard to conjure up the strident siren that starts off Brigadier Sabari.
Hard times over
In Brooklyn, on a trip to the United States during the previous decade, Alpha had seen his dream turn to dust the day he was due to record his voice in the studio and no one showed up. The Jamaican producer Clive Hunt had taken off for London without letting him know. The new project in Abidjan marked the end of a difficult patch. “I don’t want to die poor,” he sang on the first song of the album, the rage welling up in his voice.
When the police, whose violence he had slammed, began to shout out jokes and ask to have their photo taken with him, he realized that things had taken a new turn. “You’re never ready for it. It suddenly starts, and you find yourself running after your own convoy,” he says thirty years on. More than just a hit, Brigadier Sabari and the album it comes from laid solid foundations for African reggae. It provided a model, an example and a major influence that still stands strong for reggae artists today.
Alpha Blondy has just released a triple live album of his concerts at the Zénith de Paris in 1992 and Paris Bercy in 2000 (Wagram) 2012
He is currently preparing a new collection scheduled for release after the summer.
Alpha Blondy’s website
Translation: Anne-Marie Harper