Songs for the Road No. 9: One Song from Ivory Coast, Two Travel Memories

by Ekua on April 14, 2011 in songs for the road

Memories of 1er Gaou, a song by the Ivory Coast band, Magic System:

In Ghana

Music is at the forefront of my memories of my re-acquaintance with Ghana in the summer of 2000. There were the little old ladies (each claiming to be my aunt or grandmother) who greeted us with song and dance when we arrived in the village. There was a lot of highlife, the upbeat staple genre of Ghanaian music and hiplife, the offspring of highlife and hip hop. When we flipped through radio stations on our long drives, we sometimes came across 1990s light rock from the States, a genre that Ghanaians seem to listen to with a charming innocence.

And that summer, there was a stand out song that didn’t fit into any of these categories. We would hear it everywhere and I found it strange that no one seemed to know the words. When I heard people singing along with song, they would mumble or hum most of it and join in loudly on the “Ahh” part. The song sounded undeniably West African, but distinctly different from the Ghanaian music I’d heard before.

My mom explained to me that the song was from Ivory Coast. I then understood why no one seemed to know the words, what with the arbitrary line that separates Ghana from the Ivory Coast and determines what the official language will be for the people on either side of it. Lines that have determined so much more than language over time.

When a song is popular in Ghana, you can’t avoid catching the enthusiasm about it. It wasn’t long until I was just as excited as the rest of the country when I heard 1er Gaou come on the radio. We’d all join in and go, “[mumble, mumble] Ahh!” It became the theme song of that trip.

Once a song works its way into Ghanaians’ hearts and hips, it stays there. During the holiday season of 2003-04, my family and I went back to Ghana, and the song was still going strong. Today, I’d say it’s now a classic.

In France

In the summer of 2005, I found myself touring Western Europe singing backup with a reggae band. It was an amazing opportunity that came at the worst possible time. Some days, the performances were thrilling and I enjoyed small revelations during our long drives through everyday life in Europe. On other days, I desperately craved the comfort of familiarity.

Towards the end of the tour, we stayed in a house in the Médoc region of France for a few days before our last performance. The incredibly long days were spent outside in the yard or by the sea where the vibe was somewhat similar to a small California beach town.

One day, on our way to the beach, we poked around shops that sold bathing suits and espadrilles and other summery things. And then I heard 1er Gaou. In that moment, it was so much more than a song. It was a time machine to transport me back five years and it was a tonic, a little sip of the familiar in a time just before the permeation of technology made it easier to keep in touch.

There was no assurance of happy times ahead, but with the song came a remembrance of the permanence of happy times that came before. And so this song remains indelibly linked to the summer of 2000 and things that were integral to our  trip to Ghana — family, history, laughter, and music.

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Many people in the United States are not familiar with Ivory Coast. And when people are not familiar with a country, they might see the images of turmoil, but don’t always think about the individuals who are suffering as a result of it. The word “war” gets thrown around until it becomes meaningless and makes it easy to forget the everyday desires of people in countries that are involved in it. Sometimes travel can help people see the humanity of the people of other countries, and I think music can too.

For information about what’s been going on in Ivory Coast and the struggles that could be yet to come, visit this BBC Q&A

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