Thousands of kilometres away from where it emerged, the coupé décalé music style is popular on the archipelago of the Comoros in the Indian Ocean. Here, neither coupé décalé nor rap are centred around booty-shaking women, but rather discuss politics in this country coined by a history of more than 20 attempted or successful coup d’états since independence in 1975.
Where are you going?
To the Comoros.
The Comoros. A group of islands between the northern
top of Madagascar and mainland Africa.
Aha. And what is the biggest town there?
Well, the biggest Comorian city is reputedly Marseille, but that’s another story.
The capital city is called Moroni with some 60’000 inhabitants.
Moroni? Never heard.
I had that kind of conversation several times before going to Moroni on Ngazidja Island. Ngazidja is one of the three autonomous islands that together form the Union of the Comoros. The island seems tucked away in the Indian Ocean, but has long established exchange relations with East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and, more recently, with Europe. This is obvious when listening to popular music. Twarab, the local version of taarab music, for example, is influenced by African, Arab and Indian music. Also popular is coupé décalé, a music style that emerged in the Ivorian diaspora and later in Côte d’Ivoire itself. Fascinated by the fact that a West African music style is booming in East Africa, I sought to buy some contemporary music in Moroni. In the Comorian way, this basically means somebody in a music stall copies some mp3-files on your USB stick.
«Retour de Mayotte»
When listening to this digital treasure chest, I first thought that I got some quite standard coupé décalé fare. Repetitive music, minimally arranged, self-praising party lyrics and atalaku animation. The latter include not only name dropping (friends, the president of the Republic, the Justice minister, the Cooperation minister), but also short percussive shout outs that invite people to visualize key words (concepts) with their dancing («petit vélo» with pedal movements, Guantanamo with handcuffed movements, «grippe aviaire» with convulsive movements, «Kpangô gorille» with Gorilla movements). So when I opened the file «Retour de Mayotte» I expected a song celebrating a flamboyant trip to Mayotte, a close-by island in the Comoros archipelago which is a French overseas department, thus part of the EU and the Euro zone, and not of the Union of the Comoros. This was, however, not the case.
Artist Djo RR called for the annexation of Mayotte to the Union of the Comoros. In the 1970s, there were two referendum votes on Mayotte where the population overwhelmingly chose to remain a part of France and not to become independent, in contrast to the other three main islands of the archipelago. Many Comorians consider Mayotte a part of the Comoros and see these votes as betrayal incited by political intrigue. This is also the official perspective, symbolized by the national flag, where the four stars stand for the major islands of the Union and include Mayotte. Similarly to Djo RR, also rapper Cheikh MC calls for unity in a song he recorded with rappers from Mayotte.
One Coup d'état After Another
However, many inhabitants of Mayotte probably did not regret the decision to join France. The Union of the Comoros since independence in 1975 experienced a series of over 20 attempted or successful coup d’états that earned the country the nickname Cloud Coup Coup. The first was a few month after independence and led by Ali Soilih and the notorious French mercenary Bob Denard. I was thus astonished to find an mp3 named after the convinced Maoist Soilih on my USB stick.
Rapper Jack l’Atout praises in this song the revolutionary Soilih for his visions, his integrity and this anti-colonial and progressive stance. Soilih pushed for the emancipation of women and young people, modernised the infrastructure and legalised cannabis. Parts of the population see him today with a certain nostalgia as the only leader the country ever had with a real interest in change. This is a retrospect glorification as it neglects the bloodier side of his reign that includes torture, forced labour and other forms of abuse. Ironically enough, it was mercenary Denard who reversed Soilihs command manu militari. Somewhat defiantly, the songs chorus goes: «They killed Ali Soilih, but they cannot kill the revolution.»
The unity of the Comoros is rather fragile. In 1997, the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli attempted an annexation to France, which was rejected by France and led to fights between federal soldiers and rebels. The song «Beramu», meaning the flag, must be seen in this light. It is based on the national anthem and was recorded by Cheikh MC together with Marseille-based rappers Vincenzo and Soprano of Psy4 de la rime fame.
Shortly after the attempted break-up of the federal union, Azali Assoumani seized the power in another military coup. He later tried to rubber-stamp his grip to power with elections. There was widespread criticism against his rule and rapper Cheikh MC takes this up in the track «Mwambiyé».
Social Critic and Patriotism
Cheikh MC is the country’s main young social critic. In «Kapvu», he points to the dire living conditions of the majority of the population. «Kapvu» literally means «there is no» and the rappers enumerates what is lacking in the country: water, teachers, health care, electricity, and even a working mobile phone network.
Sometimes, also the salaries of civil servants lack. Djo RR suspects them in the pockets of the country’s leaders in one of the social critic coupé décalé songs.
Of course, there is also some kind of illicit cohabitation between the rulers and the ruled and the same artist also praises politician Mohamed Abdouloihab. He, an albino, was elected president of the autonomous island Ngazidja in 2007. This praise singing is similar to coupé décalé in West Africa where however the overtly critical songs lack. The video surely has a somewhat homely style.
Mostly Muslim Population
Remarkably, Comorian coupé décalé videos do not feature the scantily clad women prevalent in their West African counterparts. This might be due to the fact that almost all Comorians are Muslim. However, Islam here is very heterogeneous and there are different currents ranging from radical to liberal. The work of Cheikh MC is informed by a certain ambivalence towards traditional cultural practices. On one hand, on his track «Kutsi wawetshé feat. Dadiposlim» he criticizes the culture of silence around child abuse and tries to encourage victims to speak out.
On the other hand, Cheikh MC features on a track by Marseille-based Comorian slam poet Ahamada Smis who takes up an old traditional song and visualizes traditional performances.
In light of the fragile political situation and economic problems, it is quite understandable that migration is an option frequently striven for. Linked to the Diaspora in Marseille and elsewhere is a recent unfortunate claim to fame of the country besides its frequent (attempted) coups: The crash of a Yemenia airbus on 30 June 2009. On the plane were many passengers travelling from Marseille or Paris via Sanaa (Yemen) to the Comoros. All crew and passengers besides a young girl died and Djobane Djo pays tribute to them in his song.
However, the migratory adventure nevertheless has an important place in the Comorian imagination. The singer proudly calls himself Djobane Djo International, boasting his travels and his concerts abroad representing successful migration. In one song, he celebrates a trip to Paris as a victory.
So finally, we are back at the point where this exploration of my USB stick erroneously began: at a song celebrating a flamboyant trip abroad.