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By Denis LABAYLE Sofitel Abidjan Hotel Ivoire

It was reggae night in Abidjan. If Pierre, a journalist at Radio Côte d’Ivoire, had not invited me, I would have missed the festival. The day before, I had been the guest on his show, On dit tout, to present my novel Noirs en blanc, a saga about Africa’s brain drain. Tall and thin, Pierre had a mischievous air about him and his hair was cropped short, he said, to hide the gray from the ladies. He had interviewed me for more than an hour, in an atmosphere that was both serious and light-hearted. We were practically friends when it was over, and I was enthusiastic about his offer to attend the reggae concert. The featured act that night, he explained, was a singer who was all the rage in the country.
He was a new star, though, having been a complete unknown only last year, Pierre said. He picked me up around 9 p.m. at the Hotel Ivoire, where I was staying. It was the city’s finest hotel, a majestic 26-story tower in the Cocody neighborhood overlooking the lagoon. In the darkness of night, Abidjan had lost some of it African character, becoming the shadow of a modern city traced by its urban lights.

After crossing Houphouët-Boigny Bridge and following Boulevard de Marseille, we reached Treicheville, a working-class neighborhood famous for its colorful market and rich nightlife. At this hour, the traffic had become almost fluid. Pierre slowed down at a large, poorly lit intersection and parked with some difficulty in a vacant lot packed with dozens of cars. As soon as we entered the hall, I realized that the band had not waited for us and that we were not the first to arrive. In fact, there were only a few seats left. The only ones we could find were near the stage, right next to enormous speakers that were spewing tons of decibels capable of bursting our eardrums. It was a shame because the racket was drowning out the voices of the two pretty women on stage, who were singing softly, the microphones pressed to their lips. One was blonde, the other brunette, and they wore identical shiny miniskirts, keeping the beat with a sensual sway of their hips. Behind them, the musicians were heating things up: two electric keyboards and a drummer who was particularly adept at pounding out the rhythm. All of this had me vibrating to the core. I got used to the acoustic torture from the speakers and even recognized two or three famous Bob Marley songs.

When the twin singers bid farewell, the audience applauded politely, but the crowd exploded when the star was announced: Aristide Kakao. Some people stood up to greet their idol. He came bounding on stage, mic in hand, and immediately launched into a song, the crowd singing along. Wearing a yellow-orange tunic and pants and a rasta hat in Jamaican colors, he skipped around the stage, addressing his fans almost intimately. The man was clearly a pro, and, unlike the twins, he had a harmonious voice that was strong enough to carry above the sound of the band. When he approached us, I had the strange feeling that I knew him, as if I had seen him before, but where? I had never been to a reggae concert before and his unusual name did not sound at all familiar. He had certainly not been present at my literary salon at the hotel the day before, and after spending these three days in Ivory Coast, I didn’t know anyone here except my journalist friend. Could I be mistaken? Could I have confused him with someone else? He moved away and then returned, and each time my feeling stronger. Like the twins, he sang Bob Marley songs, but he also performed other numbers that the crowd knew. Pierre screamed in my ear that these songs were from his original repertoire and were what had made him a star. His “hits” were totally unknown to me, except for one song that seemed vaguely familiar. Where had I heard it? I had no reggae CDs in my possession, not to mention any by Aristide Kakao. I became more and more perplexed by this strange impression. The concert went on for a long time, much to the delight of the crowd, but I wasn’t really listening anymore. I was searching through my memory for a clue that might shed some light on the situation. There is nothing more aggravating than being betrayed by your memory. The more I looked, the more convinced I became that I knew this man, but his face seemed to be lost in the fog of my memories, without the slightest indication as to where we might have met. And it was impossible to ask Pierre because the noise ruled out any semblance of conversation. I waited patiently, sipping my cocktail and distracting myself by trying to determine the ingredients. There was definitely rum! And clearly there was lemon and pineapple, too. But it took me awhile to detect the ginger…

After an hour and a half on stage, the singer, sweating and spent, was finally showing signs of fatigue. He did two or three encores, and then departed to thunderous applause, replaced on stage by a singer in a green boubou, a large, mature woman with a wide face and a deep voice. Pierre took advantage of the change of acts to suggest that we leave, a proposition that I eagerly accepted in order to prevent definitive hearing loss. Outside, I thanked Pierre for having introduced me to this Ivorian celebrity and his music, and after I told him about the odd impression I had that I knew him, he simply said:
“C’mon, let’s go congratulate him in his dressing room, and you can ask him.” We went around to the back of the building. A huge bouncer at the stage door refused to let us in, but Pierre cajoled him by presenting his press card and explaining that he had come to interview the star. We followed the bouncer to the dressing room, which was actually just a little corner where Aristide Kakao was having a glass of wine with his musicians. The bouncer whispered in his ear the reason for our visit and the star came to shake our hands. He knew Pierre’s show and, smiling, invited us to have a drink with him and his colleagues.
After offering my compliments, I told him I felt like I’d seen him before, but where? He burst out laughing as if he were making fun of my question.
“So,” he asked me, “where could we have met?’’ I suggested my various hypotheses, each of which gave rise to more laughter. No, it wasn’t in Ivory Coast. So where? In Paris? Try to remember. Was it in a music hall? Not really… We played cat and mouse like that for awhile. He had never seen me before yet he seemed to know where we had met; I was convinced that we had crossed paths before yet I was incapable of saying precisely where. He put an end to my quest by asking a subsidiary question:
“Do you often take the RER B commuter train line?” And then, suddenly, everything became clear. Of course! Why had I not thought of it sooner? The recollection of a black singer’s performance in a Paris Métro station, his voice hypnotizing the commuters and attracting a large circle of admirers, came back to me. What a welcome change he had been from the usual accordion and guitar players. At the Châtelet station, he was a resounding success. When I asked how he had gone from the Paris Métro to the Abidjan reggae festival, he declined to answer, too tired from the concert to begin telling me his story, but he proposed that we meet the next day at my hotel. That way we can share our Paris memories, he said, adding that this would please him greatly. I gladly accepted. Pierre, busy with his work, declined the offer. We agreed to meet the next day at 2 p.m. at the bar of the Hotel Ivoire.

Back in my room, I was having trouble sleeping. Aristide Kakao was on my mind. Now I perfectly recalled listening to him on several occasions at Châtelet, always with the same admiration and pleasure. The first time, I had been sitting on a bench waiting for a train when he set up in front of me with his music machine mounted on a little trolley. He had barely started singing No Woman No Cry and already a crowd gathered. And I was so carried away by his magic that I forgot my train. Little by little, the circle grew wider and thicker, and the crowd applauded the artist after each song. Sometimes he waited for the commotion to die down, and then, glancing at the board listing arrival times, launched into his next song just as the train for Boissy-Saint-Léger had pulled away and before the train for Massy Palaiseau had arrived… The more I listened, the more I realized how much his voice was enhancing the old songs. Annoying medleys and trite, sentimental, poorly played tunes were not his style. His songs, original interpretations sung in a mesmerizing voice, kept you listening to the end. The other buskers in the Métro sang for their money, but he was an artist.
Not only did he offer a real show, but his joy was contagious and I recalled having observed a joyous metamorphosis come over the haggard faces of the weary commuters. The crowd did not let him down: Coins regularly filled the plastic bottle at his feet. As thanks, he offered a nod of his head and a warm smile without interrupting his song. Each time I had heard him, I wondered how he could perform amid all the pandemonium, between the arrivals and departures of the trains.

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