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Ivory Coast Musicians Become Increasingly Political - 2003-05-21

Musicians in Ivory Coast are becoming increasingly political after eight months of civil war, using their songs to call on Ivorians to support one side or the other in the ongoing dispute. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Abidjan on the role of music before the civil war, and now that a shaky reconciliation process is under way.

In the song Mal en Pis, which means From Bad to Worse, reggae star Alpha Blondy says he doesn't want to hear about politics anymore. He says he would rather save his life.

But other lyrics in the song call on Africans to stand up and fight for their rights against a president's abuse of power. Some of the rebels who took up arms in September said Alpha Blondy and other musicians inspired them to fight for northerners, Muslims and immigrants in Ivory Coast, who often feel like second-class citizens.

Now, eight months later, there is a musical backlash of sorts. It is called Patriotic Pop and it is sweeping through government-held areas in southern Ivory Coast.

The song Liberate Bouake by singer Christy B. is played in bars across Abidjan. Bouake, the country's second largest city, remains under rebel control.

Last week, an all-star collection of Abidjan musicians who support President Laurent Gbagbo released the album Patriots Sing. The songs call on Ivorians to rebuild their country, but also blame the rebels for the country's problems.

The word 'patriotism' has been used by all sides in the conflict. The main rebel group calls itself the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, saying it wants to help build a just society where all groups are represented politically.

Youth groups opposed to a power-sharing peace deal with rebels call themselves Young Patriots. They say Ivory Coast should not allow rebels to dictate their agenda by taking up arms.

But the distributor of the album Patriots Sing, Henri Kattie, of Ivoir Top Music, says these days in Ivory Coast the government's version of patriotism sells everywhere, and that includes rebel-held zones.

Mr. Kattie says he believes even the rebels are listening to the so-called patriotic music, and that it is helping end the war, even if the interpretation of the music is not the same for all.

In the basement of Ivoir Top Music, patriotic tapes are being churned out. Mr. Kattie says he will distribute Patriots Sing for free to embassies around the world to promote Ivory Coast.

Marie Stenbock, a Belgian sociologist who recently helped make a movie about identity problems in Ivory Coast, says the patriotism now promoted in Abidjan can be dangerous. She says it pretends to be in favor of reconciliation, but she believes it is divisive.

"Musicians are using patriotism as a cultural weapon, as a way to fight others who are seen as not being pure Ivorians," she said. "The president seems to be encouraging southerners to be hardened patriots opposed to northerners, many of them born outside Ivory Coast and seen as not real Ivorians."

Some musicians say they are thinking so much about politics that they don't even have time to make any music. That is the situation for Serge Kassy, a popular reggae musician who is close to President Laurent Gbagbo.

On national television this week, Mr. Kassy called on members of the militant group Alliance of Youth to take to the streets on Saturday to protest the French-brokered power sharing agreement with rebels. Even though the accord was reached in January, it still has not been fully implemented.

Meanwhile, other Ivorian musicians like Ticken Jah, who spoke out against President Gbagbo before the start of the conflict have fled the country. In a recent newspaper interview from his new home in Mali, Ticken Jah says he is a spokesman for those who suffer from injustice.

In one of his songs, he warns politicians are igniting fires of civil unrest and then pretending to be firefighters.

Whatever side they are on, all the politicized musicians in Ivory Coast say they are singing and working for a better future. But just like the politicians, they can't agree on just what that future should be.