Ivoirian star Alpha Blondy has certainly earned his reputation as the “enfant terrible” of African reggae. Indeed, the media have had a field day with the singer’s volatile personality, his unstable personal life and his string of nervous breakdowns. But nobody can deny that Blondy’s hard-hitting reggae has caused a major stir on the West African music scene. Blondy, who rose to fame with the release of his début album in the early 80’s, has now built up a strong following of fans on the European music scene.
Seydou Koné – better known to music fans as Alpha Blondy – was born in Dimbrokro, Ivory Coast, on January 1st 1953. Young Seydou was brought up by his grandmother, Chérie Coco, who lavished care and attention on her cherished grandson. But this did not always have the desired results. Indeed, Seydou was expelled from college in 1972 and the teenage rebel was sent to neighbouring Liberia to finish his studies at a school in the capital, Monrovia. This move opened up new horizons for young Seydou. The official language of Liberia being English, it also meant that Seydou made enormous progress in the language he had started learning at school in Côte d’Ivoire. After finishing school in Liberia, Seydou was thus perfectly well equipped to move to New York and continue his English studies in the Big Apple.
Besides perfecting his English in New York, Seydou began taking a passionate interest in the music scene. And one particular concert in New York was to have a major influence on the rest of his career – in 1977 Seydou attended a performance by the legendary Jamaican group Burning Spear and discovered the wonderful world of reggae. Inspired by the powerful dub rhythms he heard that evening, Seydou began singing with various local groups. But his main ambition was to record his own album and launch a solo career.
This dream almost came true when Seydou met up with the famous record producer Clive Hunt and the pair began discussing the possibility of a joint collaboration. Unfortunately, Hunt dropped out of the project at the last minute and Seydou Koné was left high and dry without a record deal. This early disappointment sent young Seydou spiralling into a major depression and he soon left New York, returning to his native Côte d’Ivoire and setting up home in the capital, Abidjan.
Seydou experienced a nervous breakdown shortly after his return to Abidjan and the young singer spent the next two years recovering in a psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, Seydou’s music helped him through this period of personal crisis and when he signed himself out of hospital he returned to his singing career.
When Seydou relaunched his singing career in the early 80’s he did so under a new stage name, Alpha Blondy (a pun on “bandit” – the word is pronounced “bondee” in French!). Seydou/Alpha got his first major break shortly after his return to the music scene when he was ‘discovered’ by the renowned television producer Fulgence Kassy. Impressed by the young singer’s evident talent, Kassy invited Blondy to perform on his TV show “Première chance” – and the rest is music history!
Following his appearance on national TV, Blondy soon went on to achieve his dream of recording a solo album. And when it was released in 1983 Blondy’s début album, “Jah Glory”, proved to be an unmitigated success. One of the most outstanding tracks on the album was undoubtedly “Brigadier Sabari”. (Sung in Blondy’s mother tongue, Dioula, this song was inspired by a violent police raid the singer witnessed in Ivory Coast).
Blondy soon became a major star on the Abidjan music scene, proving that reggae – which had for so long been thought of as a typically Jamaican sound – could be successfully reinterpreted in ivoirian style. Blondy’s catchy reggae beats became all the rage in Abidjan, and teenage music fans in the capital’s happening downtown district soon adopted Blondy as their own national version of Bob Marley. With his rebellious stance, his excitable personality and his apparently endless supply of nervous energy, Alpha Blondy certainly made a major impact on the West African music scene. Singing in French and English as well as Baoulé and his native Dioula, Blondy soon went on to cause a major stir on the European music scene too.
Indeed, Blondy’s four track EP “Rasta poué” scored a massive hit in Europe, encouraging the singer to leave his homeland for a second time and try his luck overseas again. Blondy moved to Paris in 1984, where he soon went on to sign a record deal with Pathé-Marconi (EMI). The Ivoirian star then recorded his second album, “Cocody Rock”, in Paris, hopping across the Channel to studios in London to supervise the final mixing of the album. What’s more, Blondy’s status as the Bob Marley of Ivory Coast received a kind of unofficial confirmation, when the singer flew out to Kingston to record the title track of his new album with Marley’s former backing group The Wailers.
Following the release of “Cocody Rock”, Blondy embarked upon a hectic tour schedule, performing extensively throughout West Africa. The singer’s high-energy shows proved an enormous success, hundreds of teenage reggae fans packing out stadiums across the region to groove to Ivory Coast’s leading reggae-man.
When Blondy returned to Ivory Coast after this exhausting tour, he went straight back into the studio to begin work on a brand new album entitled “Apartheid is Nazism”. Blondy’s third album, released in 1985, was a militant anthem which demanded an end to apartheid and freedom for all. “Apartheid is Nazism” also featured a number of softer dub tracks such as “Jésus come back” – which found Blondy exploring a new mystical vein!
Blondy The Mystic
Blondy continued his new mystical approach on his fourth album “Jérusalem”, which was released the following year. Recorded in the legendary Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica with Bob Marley’s former backing group The Wailers, “Jérusalem” promoted Blondy’s new message of religious unity. The songs on Blondy’s new album examined the precepts of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, drawing inspiration from the Torah and the Koran as well as the Bible. The Ivoirian star also began preaching his new philosophy of religious unity on stage – and when Blondy performed in Morocco in July 86 he chose to sing the Hebrew lyrics of the song “Jérusalem” to an audience of Muslims. Some critics considered this to be as an open act of provocation, but Blondy saw himself as a man on a personal mission to restore religious harmony in the world!
In the spring of 87 Blondy and his group Solar System embarked on a major tour of France, kicking off a hectic round of concerts at Le Zénith in Paris (on March 6th and 7th). Blondy and Solar System then headed out to the French Antilles to perform a series of concerts in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Ivory Coast’s Reggae King was then due to perform an extensive European tour – but this had to be cancelled at the last minute. NRJ, the independent French radio station in charge of organising Blondy’s European tour, blamed the cancellation on the singer’s “unprofessional behaviour”. NRJ do appear to have been justified in their complaint – Blondy’s behaviour during this period was notoriously erratic to say the least. Indeed, the singer would often make his fans wait up to two hours before belatedly taking to the stage!
Blondy, who had become a major star throughout West Africa by this stage of his career, soon began experimenting with a new musical style. This new style was much in evidence on the Ivoirian star’s new album “Révolution”, which was recorded in Paris in 1987. “Révolution” found Blondy exploring a more mellow sound, adapting violins and cello to his habitual reggae beat on the track “Sweet Fanta Diallo”. The album also included a slow ballad duet (“Miri”) which Blondy recorded with the legendary Ivoirian diva Aïcha Koné.
But one of the most outstanding tracks on “Révolution” – at least in terms of novelty value! – was “Jah Houphouët parle” (Jah Houphouët Speaks). This track was exactly what the title described – i.e. 10 minutes 37 seconds of a speech by the late ivoirian president recorded over a vague reggae beat. This tribute to Houphouët-Boigny took up practically two thirds of the first side of Blondy’s new album! And critics did not hesitate to attack the singer for it. But Blondy remained cool in the face of criticism, defending his right to express his own political views.
1988 got off to a bad start for Blondy with another series of concerts in Paris (at Le Zénith) being cancelled. The reggae star soon bounced back, however, flying off to the United States where he performed a successful 2-month tour. The following year Blondy gave up his base in Paris and returned to Abidjan. Needless to say, Blondy’s return to his homeland caused a veritable stir on the Ivoirian music scene. What’s more, Ivory Coast’s leading reggae-man returned home bearing gifts – in the form of his new album “The Prophets”. Blondy, who considered that his record company Pathé Marconi was neglecting the African market, had decided to take matters in hand and assure the promotion of his new album himself. After writing, recording and producing “The Prophets” all by himself, Blondy had also decided to be responsible for his own management from now on!
At the end of 89 Blondy set off on another major tour with his group Solar System, performing an impressive number of dates across West Africa. The singer then began work on a new album entitled “SOS guerre tribale” (SOS Tribal War). Yet the album, recorded in a simple 8-track studio in Abidjan, was not a huge commercial success outside Ivory Coast.
Blondy Makes a Major Comeback
However, Blondy would soon go shooting back to the top of the European charts. African reggae’s “enfant terrible” returned to Paris in December 91, performing three highly popular shows at the Elysée-Montmartre which coincided with the release of a brand new album entitled “Masada”. This excellent new album featured arrangements by Boncaïna Maïga. And Denis Bovell (renowned for his work with the legendary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson) was responsible for the final mix. Inevitably, Blondy’s new single “Rendez-vous” soon proved an enormous hit and it came as no surprise to anyone when sales of the album “Masada” also rocketed, earning Blondy his first gold disc. The career of the “rastafoulosophe” (“rasta-philosopher” as Blondy liked to describe himself) was up and running again and no mistake! Riding the wave of his new-found success, Blondy kicked off an extensive European tour, finishing up with a triumphant concert at Le Zénith in Paris.
But Blondy’s exhausting tour schedule soon began to take its toll on the singer’s fragile nerves. After finishing his European tour, the reggae star spiralled into another major depression. And at the beginning of 93 Blondy suffered another breakdown which led to him attempting to commit suicide.
Fortunately, Blondy soon recovered from his nervous collapse. Indeed, the African reggae star returned to the forefront of the music scene later that year with a brand new album entitled “Dieu” (God). As the title suggests, Blondy’s new album proved to be more mystical than ever. Joined in the studio by a group of first-class musicians, Blondy speeded up his traditional reggae rock beat, launching into a range of controversial issues on songs such as “Abortion is a Crime”. The singer also expressed his personal feelings on the moving track “Heal Me”.
Unfortunately, nobody appeared to be able to do so. Blondy’s mental problems continued to wreak havoc on his personal life, causing him to return to a psychiatric hospital for several more treatments. But by the end of 94 Blondy was back at the forefront of the music scene. Indeed on 10th December that year the singer performed in Abidjan at a music festival organised to commemorate the first anniversary of President Houphouët-Boigny’s death. A few days later Blondy flew out to Paris, making an impressive comeback at Le Zénith (on 29th December).
In 1996 Blondy was back in the charts once more with a “Best of” compilation album. The reggae star also returned to the studio later that year to begin work on a new album entitled “Grand Bassam-Zion Rock” (Boncana Maïga joining him to look after the musical arrangements). Released in June 96, Blondy’s new album revealed the singer to be a true polyglot – “Grand Bassam-Zion Rock” featured songs recorded in Arabic, Malinké, French, English, Wolof and Ashanti ! Blondy’s new album – a rich fusion of reggae, rock and funk – also included an innovative cover version of Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic”.
In fact, this single appeared on Blondy’s new album, “Elohim” (a Hebrew word meaning “God” or “I am the multitude”). The album was released in Africa at the end of ’99 and arrived in French record shops in February 2000. Several other tracks on “Elohim” were written in the same angry vein, Blondy venting his fury at political abuse, corruption and poverty in his homeland (c.f. “Les voleurs de la république”, “Dictature” and “La queue du diable”). As the Ivory Coast span into political crisis at the beginning of 2000, Blondy began to play an increasingly high-profile role taking part in public debates about the future of the country and speaking out on several key issues.
It was only two years later in March 2002 that Blondy brought out his next album. Entitled “Merci”, the new opus celebrated the artist’s twentieth year in the music business. At the release press conference of the album held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the Reggaeman declared: “I want to thank God and all those who have contributed even remotely to my career (…) I also want to thank my enemies! Because their criticisms and their falsehood has enabled me to improve.” (AFP 12/03/02). As political as ever, the album featured two tracks, “Politruc” and “Feu” that provided serious political criticism. It also included a pamphlet against antipersonnel mines, co-sung with Ophélie Winter and entitled “Who are you?”. Rap band Saïan Supa Crew collaborated to another title, “Wari”.
A prominent figure of West-African music, Alpha Blondy has enjoyed a twenty-year career dominated by strong media backup in Africa as well as in Europe, especially in France. Nevertheless, his commercial success has experienced some ups and downs.