Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lome ladies of song

Just wanted to quickly share this cool video I stumbled upon:

An October 2006 rehearsal of a theatre troupe in Lome, Togo, featuring the grand dame of Togolese music, Julie Akofa Akoussah. Man, I could listen to her piercing, haunting soprano all day! Sadly, Akofa Akoussah passed away a few months after this footage was shot, in April 2007. She was 57.

It's easy to forget how relatively young she was, since she exerted a presence on the Togolese music scene for so long. She was only 16 when she began her professional career in 1966, representing Togo at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal and spanned five decades as a respected singer, songwriter and presenter on radio and television.

Check out these tracks poached from our friend Pieter's excellent (though infrequently updated) Sea Never Dry blog

Julie Akofa Akoussah - "I Tcho Tchass"
Julie Akofa Akoussah - "La Lem"

and then check out Akofa Akoussah's site.

But Julie Akofa was not the only Togolese chanteuse whose career was launched on that Dakar stage; 21-year-old Bella Bellow also represented Togo at the festival and became a legend almost overnight. As her country's favorite singer and the one with the greatest chances for international success, she hooked up in 1968 with the ambitious Paris-based Togolese producer Gérard Akueson, who set out to position her as the next Miriam Makeba.

Akueson's aesthetic seemed to be based on the goal of packaging African music for upmarket European audiences, with snazzy arrangements, Broadway-ready choruses and Ipi Tombi-esque exotic ambience, as heard on Akue releases such as

Bella Bellow - "Bem-Bem"
Bella Bellow - "O Senye"

and "Zelie":

Bellow parted ways with Akueson in 1971 and returned to Togo, but not before she recorded some grittier sides with Manu Dibango, such as

Bella Bellow - "Dasi Ko"

(Akueson, for his part, quickly rebounded from the loss of Bellow, embarking upon a long musical and matrimonial relationship with the young Congolese diva Abeti Masikini.)

Tragically, Bella Bellow's meteoric rise was cut short in 1975, when she perished in an automobile crash at the age of 27. She has remained a sainted figure in the musical canon of Togo and also in neighboring Benin, where singers such as Angelique Kidjo cite her as a major influence.

Vive les reines!


Bay Radical said...

I've been reading your blog on feed for a few months and I'm regularly blown away by the amazing music and your good writing. Julie Akofa Akoussah is fantastic! Thanks for introducing me to another excellent artist.

Comb & Razor said...

hey... thanks a lot, Bay Radical! great to see you round here again!

N.I.M.M.O said...

Brother-mine, I have nearly read your whole blog. Moving on to 2006 now.

Its a blessing I found this your blog, walahi.

You see, my paternal grandmother was Togolese and my Dad had so many records in the house back then. Thus we grew up with music of Akofa Akoussa and Bella Bellow in our heads! I can remember watching Julie Akofa perform sometime in the late seventies at the Hotel Sarakawa in Lome.

Also, one of my cousins is named after Bella Bellow and I think it would have been at the time of her death though I didnt know that before reading it here. My cousin was born in 1975.

Please, I want to ask for a favor. There was this song I believe was done by Julie Akofa (I cant be sure now but it was on Decca, 45" and was recorded by a female artiste). Its in Ewe and called 'Tutugborvi'. It was an Ewe lullaby.

I understand Angelique Kidjo did a remake of it but I have never heard that one myself.

Will be much obliged if I can get that. I just had a baby and want him to hear it too.

Many thanx.

N.I.M.M.O said...

The song 'I Tcho Tchass' is actually 'Ijo Jazz' which means 'Jazz Dance' in Yoruba. You will appreciate the strong influence of Yoruba on the Ewe-speaking people of coastal West Africa.

Of course the French spelt everything their own way without regard for the original owners of the language.

Its a problem people like us encountered regularly.

Comb & Razor said...

N.I.M.M.O. -

wow... thanks a lot for that background!

obviously, i know about the crossover of Yoruba language and culture in Benin, but i didn't know much its extent in Togo. it all makes sense to me now, though, because a lot of times i hear what *vaguely* sounds like Yoruba when i listen to Togolese music... but not quite!

"I Tcho Tchass" = "Ijo Jazz"... damn, so obvious! why didn't i think of that?

anyway, i don't have (or know) the song "Tutugborvi," but i will try to hunt it down and i'll surely let you know if i find it.



Comb & Razor said...

congrats on the baby, btw... and thanks for reading!