Advanced Search

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
African Cities Reader
Arts & Pedagogy
Books & Oration
Cash & Commerce
Chimurenga Books
Chimurenga Library
Chimurenga Magazine
Faith & Ideology
Healing & bodies
Indie Books
Library Book Series
Live Events
Media & Propaganda
Systems of Governance

Dansons Donc le Zouglou

By Henri-Michel Yere


In 1980s Côte d’Ivoire, exclusion from the schooling system became a possibility that many high school graduates had to face. An economic crisis had set in; the prices of the country’s main produce – cocoa and coffee – had undergone a sharp decrease in the late 1970s. Le succès de ce pays repose sur l’agriculture, was still dished out at lunch time, daily, on national TV. But Agriculture was no longer thriving, and it did not take long for the International Monetary Fund to identify the fact – by 1983, Côte d’Ivoire had started with its first structural adjustment programme. To this day the IMF claims they are busy healing our wounds.

The legendary fits of anger of our founder-president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905-1993) against the raw material price speculators did not change anything in our falling fortunes. The old leader then tried to convince the unemployed youth idle in the cities to ‘go back to the land’.

Up to 1983, high school graduates all received scholarships as a reward for their admission to University; they were literally salaried to go to school. This was part of the system of wealth distribution as the Government had conceived it since the opening of the National University in 1963. As a counterpart though, students had to accept that they would be orientés, assigned various field of study.

In 1983 the scholarships dried up and those left behind became known as the déscolarisés – literally ‘de-schooled,’ school dropouts. To this group of youth suddenly made redundant, you could add those who had been stopped by the probatoire – a filtering system, in the penultimate high school year, to limit the annual number of graduates.

This country had thus far operated on the premise that National Education was the door to social success. Since 1946, when the first high school graduates left the colony to go to university in France, the university degree had become the key to social recognition. This first generation of graduates came back and staffed the first Ivorian government in 1956–1957. Their example showed that through a formal education, one could hope to reach the highest levels within the public service and become a cadre, the figure of success par excellence. A cadre didn’t just stand for one’s own family, but also for one’s entire village, one’s entire region, one’s entire ethnic group. After Independence in 1960, cabinet ministers were picked among the pool of cadres available to presidential discretion.

Zouglou: A Fighting Prayer

Zouglou, a musical genre that was aired for the first time on Ivorian national television and radio in October 1991, saw the tail of hope as it was vanishing into the darkness. And it started to mourn it. As such, it was not ill-placed to think of Zouglou as the locale for the imagination of an alternative dream to emerge. But Zouglou was never about dreaming differently; it was about complaining that the road to power had been rendered more difficult, not that the fact of looking for a road to power could be a problematic concern in and of itself.

 Its creators and first exponents were university students, hailing from the Université Nationale de Côte d’Ivoire in Abidjan, precisely from the university residence of Yopougon, the largest district of Abidjan. Like any other new rhythm that comes into fashion in Côte d’Ivoire, Zouglou was introduced to the public with an accompanying dance. That dance was a fight and a prayer: a disarticulated series of supple movements, a riot of arms pointing to the heavens in an actual prayer to God, feet sliding smoothly on the ground and through the air in a way Bruce Lee would not have disapproved of, to defend whatever it was that the Ivorian University Student still owned, that is, mostly his or her desecrated status as University Student.

The music started out from the basic beat of alloucou, a rhythm that came from Western Côte d’Ivoire, popular in the 1970s. The melodies that made up Zouglou chants are a patchwork of melodies from all over the country. The genesis of Zouglou is the story of high school students travelling the country during the OISSU championships, a series of State-sponsored school sports competitions, which mobilised up to 40 000 competitors in any one year. Each team was assisted by the services of a home-grown groupe d’animation (supporters’ group), whose job it was to root for their teams. They did so by adapting melodies from wherever they heard them while travelling across the country. Their style became known as ambiance facile, for their music ushered in a relaxed atmosphere of joy and playfulness. Groupes d’animation collected something like two to three hundred songs from all over Côte d’Ivoire, which they sang most of the time in the one language that they all knew, French, soon to become nouchi

Zouglou also filled a void in Ivorian popular culture – left by the untimely death of musician Ernesto Djédjé (1947–1983). With Zigligbithy style, Djédjé had achieved the unique feat of inventing a new musical genre in a smart arrangement of a particular rhythm from his native Bété region. After learning the ropes with the dean of Ivorian music, Amédée Pierre, Djédjé asserted his artistic independence and in 1977 hit the airwaves with his unforgettable ‘Ziboté’. The song became an Africa-wide success, a first in Ivorian music. Djédjé also made the point that it was possible to ‘modernise’ so-called ‘traditional’ genres; this led many artists to go home and ‘rediscover’ their musical heritage. However, after Djédjé’s passing, none of his self-proclaimed successors managed to capture anything of the talent of their hero, let alone his charisma. Besides, Ivorian musicians underwent severe competition with the likes of Kanda Bongo Man, Papa Wemba, or Youssou N’dour who had a faithful audience in Côte d’Ivoire, and for whom Abidjan was an obligatory pit-stop in their conquest of the nascent ‘World Music’ audience.

As mentioned above, at this early stage, ambiance facile as a musical style catered for the students during school competitions. Progressively, ambiance facile developed into a musical movement widespread among all youth in Abidjan. Every neighbourhood had its own group that would perform during public ceremonies such as sport competitions, but also funerals, political meetings, etc.

In its singing, in its lyrical content and in its dancing style, Zouglou stems directly from ambiance facile. Thus this style had an audience before it was officially presented to the wider Ivorian audience as Zouglou music – as a studio-produced and arranged music – on national television. On 1st October 1991, Didier Bilé and his group Les Parents du Campus released ‘Gboglo Koffi,’ a litany on the hardships that university students went through on a daily basis. The opening chapter of his hit (90 000 tapes sold!) stood as the manifesto of the Zouglou movement:


Ah! La vie estudiantine!

Elle est belle mais il y a encore beaucoup de problèmes

Lorsqu’on voit un étudiant, on l’envie

Toujours bien sapé, joli garçon sans produit ghanéen

Mais en fait il faut entrer dans son milieu

Pour connaître la misère et la galère d’un étudiant

Ah ! Bon Dieu, qu’avons-nous fait pour subir un tel sort ?

Et c’est cette manière d’implorer le Seigneur qui a engendré le Zouglou

Danse philosophique qui permet à l’étudiant de se recueillir et d’oublier un peu ses      problèmes

Dansons donc le Zouglou ![1]


From this solemn overture follows the story of how little money students receive each month; how the university restaurants dish out food ‘only good for dogs’; how students can find themselves to be seven squatting in a room meant for only two students etc. The story told in this song revolves around a student trying to seduce a young woman, basing his whole seduction strategy solely on his student status. It appears that being a student still means something, for he succeeds in seducing the young woman – if it wasn’t enough to be a university graduate to land in the comfortable seat of State Office, it still meant something in terms of seduction. This was probably the last terrain where the student could use the social value of his status. This song laid bare the dilemma of the student condition, stuck in the middle of the Ivorian dream of social success: unable to reach what looked like a certainty only a generation ago (the cadre status), while the general public still viewed the student as someone with a bright future ahead of him or her.

One of the characteristics of Zouglou is that the songs are related in the manner of a story. They are snapshots of the lives of different characters. What makes the stories interesting and accessible to the wider public is that each and every one is able to recognise in these characters figures of the Abidjanais social scene. The student, the gazeur[2], the football supporter, the déscolarisé youth recount a particular episode of their lives in the shape of a song that becomes emblematic of their destiny, adding a new story to the popular consciousness of the day. Another characteristic of Zouglou is the humour with which these serious themes are rendered.

The Zouglou movement participated in the wider movement of democratisation of the political playing field at work in Côte d’Ivoire and in most of Africa at the time. While the IMF had managed to place one of their own in the position of Prime Minister (Alassane Ouattara) in 1990, the one-party state as such had ceased to exist. New political parties, new newspapers, new trade unions, new ideas became part of the everyday. But this novelty had come a little late; it had come at a time when the means to renew infrastructure were not put forth, whereas the desire for newness had never been so strong. An immense thirst for change was waiting for the new leaders of the country; political liberalization may have felt like a storm for old one-party state stalwarts, but really it was a few drops of water, because the new pluralism came shrouded in the glove of a stingy economics referred to as rigueur (austerity). The rigueur economists – in other words, the Government – simply forgot how difficult it was to postpone a thing like thirst.

The generation that came of age through Zouglou thus felt that their fate was nobody else’s business but theirs. This generation had come of age at the time when Houphouët-Boigny’s State Capitalism was about to capsize. Those who went to university got there at the time when neo-liberal thinking became the ideological reference for dealing with the problems of the Nation. The déscolarisés were seen as parasites within their own families. The effect of this absolute let-down – neither the Government nor your family will take care of you – made it possible to let out a fearless critique of Ivorian society, worded and sung in the poetry of the everyday, a poetry perceived as harmless through the use of humour. Instead of drowning, the déscolarisés taught themselves how to swim, on the spot.

After Parents du Campus, many groups built their fortunes on Zouglou, expanding its repertoire and opening out the range of themes that it dealt with. Zougloumania, Esprit de Yop, les Potes de la Rue, les Poussins Chocs became household names to the Ivorian listening public. These groups were typically made of young men whose school career had been interrupted because of one of the many roadblocks that the government had instituted in the 1980s. Zouglou was as much the child of the déscolarisé youth as it was that of the university students. L’Enfant Yodé, one of the founding voices of Zouglou, made a hit in 1993 with his song Les Côcôs. The song was delivered in typical nouchi language, dwelling on the theme of parasitism:

C’est les côcôs (bis)

Les côcôs, les côcôs sont pas sérieux

C’est les côcôs

Les côcôs, c’est des gens ils sont pas gentils

C’est les côcôs

Savez-vous ce qu’on appelle Côcô ?

Les côcôs c’est des gens qui vivent

Dans la poches de leurs camarades

Ceux-là c’est les côcôs.[3]

The word côcô (pimp) cannot be found in a French dictionary. In this song L’Enfant Yodé argues that the best-dressed people in Abidjan are in fact côcôs, part of the struggling lot that had become a feature of Abidjanais life in the 1990s. It is a variation on the theme of poverty, a poverty that can no longer be masked by beautiful clothes, or by attitudes that are meant to suggest affluence.

L’Enfant Yodé borrows heavily from nouchi. Yet another product of urbanisation in Côte d’Ivoire, nouchi is the idiom identified with Abidjan youth. It is the result of a mixture of French, national languages spoken in the land (over sixty of them), and foreign languages learnt in school such as English, and sometimes Spanish. Its vocabulary, based on onomatopoeias and metaphors, feeds on what happens in the news and in society in general. Nouchi started out as a secret code that was used between workers in the so-called informal sector, so that they could escape the control of their bosses in a sector that is not regulated by any law or any protective measure for the workers. These youth doing at times menial jobs are none other than the déscolarisé youth, who are de facto disqualified from entering the formal sector.

Zouglou Prophetics in Times of Trouble

As poetry, Zouglou had revelled in the naked engagement with the most pressing issues of its time. Zouglou had told the truth of a time when a few power-hungry men successfully captured the energies of the Nation. The most enlightened supporters of these men understood that they were playing for their very lives in the theatre of the desire for power. Yet they went along with the game. That is the power of power: this unique ability to make the sacrifice of life in its quest look like something normal, and the gall to call in history to the rescue as a justification over the coffins of the countless young people fallen for somebody else’s belly to grow rounder.

The first time people started to give their lives for power in recent Ivorian politics was during the campaign for the 1995 presidential election. The incumbent president Henri Konan Bédié was looking for a legitimacy he’d been striving for since his assumption of power after the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, whom he had succeeded. He had managed to get rid of his most threatening competitor, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, by denying him the right to compete in the presidential elections. Ouattara had once carried an Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) passport – and this was a disqualifier according to the new legal conditions cooked up by Bédié. Laurent Gbagbo, the historic socialist opponent, locked in the mysteries of a bizarre alliance with the neo-liberal Ouattara, decided to follow his ally and not to be a candidate either. Instead, they decided to ‘actively boycott’ the election. That was when people started to lose their lives for the cause, a cause made to look grander than whatever it really was about.

Les Salopards captured the sudden brutality of Ivorian power politics, and compared it to what was happening in the rest of the Continent. They warned that politics was simply a murderous affair:

Politique, politique assassine!

Ne vois-tu pas ces pays en guerre

À cause de toi?

Politique, politique meutrière!

Voyons en Angola,

Voyons en Somalie,

Voyons au Rwanda,

Tous ces pays en guerre

À cause de toi![4]

As if this had not been enough of a warning, Bédié, who won an unconvincing 96% of the vote, was well aware that he did not stand on solid enough ground as president. After all, Houphouët was dead; he was forced to exist on his own. So he created ivoirité, which he presented as ‘the philosophy of what it means to be an Ivorian’. Once again, it was Zouglou, through the voices of Petit Yodé (not to be confused with L’Enfant Yodé) and L’Enfant Siro, that read the consequences of this risky intellectual and political adventure to its logical end:

Tu sais qui je suis?

Si Ivoirien te dit: ‘tu sais qui je suis?’

C’est qu’il veut dire

qu’il est Ivoirien que toi

Affaire de Ivoirité

A l’école primaire

L’histoire de la Reine Pokou

On nous a dit que les Akan étaient venus

Du Ghana

C’est aussi pour fuir la guerre

que les Krou sont venus du Libéria

(…) Et puis ensemble on a formé un joli pays

Où y a pas palabre[5]

Zouglou’s Dubious Heritage

At that time, palabre (strife) was still boiling under the lid, although it was slowly becoming the most effective manner of politics in the land. The successors of those who had become university students in the early 1990s started to use strife as a strategy, and they let it establish its disturbing laws over how they went about business, before they managed to domesticate it…

Some from the generation of students that had invented Zouglou had managed to graduate, and many of them had chosen the safest and juiciest spots of the Ivorian State apparatus in order to launch their careers. They were police commissioners, customs service officers, while the rest divided themselves between the revenue service and the justice system. This was a remarkable feat: they secured their degrees in the midst of a university crumbling with strikes and police repression; against all the odds, they rose to relatively comfortable positions. But even there, one felt that their entry into the professional world was surrounded by an aura of shameless greed.

To those who followed them at university, they left Zouglou as a heritage. By that time, Zouglou was no longer regarded as the exclusive property of university students; it had acquired a life of its own. The pontiffs of the local music business were very happy to take care of such a providential golden goose with the likes of Magic System and their 1999 international hit Premier Gaou. What this first generation of university students had left their successors was not so much Zouglou as music as much as Zouglou as attitude: the defiant look in the eyes of the guy you thought you had drowned, but who survived; not only that, he learned how to swim in your waters…

In this inheritance also: an organisation active in Ivorian schools and universities born from the same whirlwind that begot Zouglou, the Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire (FESCI). FESCI had been a thorn in the side of every Ivorian government since its birth in April 1990. Every secretary-general of this student union had been to prison at least once. Banned in 1991, FESCI was still the partner the Government sought after for negotiations if they were serious about ending a strike among students… FESCI managed to impress by its own resilience as an organisation. When the heirs to the first Zouglou generation seized hold of FESCI, they realized that the struggles of their elders had not necessarily yielded as many fruits as expected: there still weren’t enough lecture venues, nor were there more student residences; neither more books in the libraries, nor more libraries for that matter. The struggle had to go on.

The violence that Zouglou as a dance had symbolically translated into a celebration of the body-as-intercessor between our world and God, that violence had been a structural component of student politics since the early 1990s. FESCI had been banned on the grounds of its alledged role in the assassination of Thierry Zébié Zirignon, a student who had been in the employ of the then ruling party PDCI, and whose role it was to terrorise FESCI sympathisers. A mob of students one day in May 1991 marched on him, and beat him to death.

In the late 1990s, the heirs came in with a renewed sense of hunger in the face of the tasks still at hand. They were about to achieve a tour de force that had not announced itself as such. As to whether they had thought about it themselves I cannot ascertain. What is clear is that when outgoing secretary-general Guillaume Soro handed over FESCI to its new head, Charles Blé Goudé, in 1998, clans had formed inside the union, at the more or less secret behest of political parties vying for the control of so vital a constituency as the youth. Internecine warfare inside the student union prefigured Ivorian politics in what it was to look like in a few years’ time. While in the official circles of power verbal battles were taking place in the velvety venues of parliamentary politeness, on the campuses of Abidjan and Bouaké machetes were showing the way of the future. The FESCI leaders were too busy fighting to be truly preoccupied with actually studying – indeed, nobody can ascertain whether they got any degrees. What is certain however is that a few years after they had left FESCI and university, they did not rush to customs services or to the financial services of the State; instead they went straight for the jugular. They managed to impose themselves as indispensable figures during the most serious political crisis that Côte d’Ivoire has known to date. Guillaume Soro emerged as the leader of the Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI), the civilian branch of the military rebellion that tried to overthrow President Gbagbo – head of state since 2000 – in September 2002. MPCI held the Northern half of the country under its direct control for five years. As for Blé Goudé, he imposed himself as the leader of the Patriotic Youth, whose support for Gbagbo has been critical to his remaining in power to this day; in other words, Blé Goudé was Soro’s counterpart in the loyalist camp. In a sense, Soro, Blé Goudé and their cohort represent a break, in that it is their leadership qualities honed in the Zouglou movement, their ability to muster political support, that became the key instrument of their success. Not their acquisition of degrees in spite of the fact that they went to university. These undeniable qualities allowed them to jump over the heads of the generation between that of the top brass of Ivorian leadership (the Bédié/Ouattara/ Gbagbo) and their own, in order to rally the highest circles of power in contemporary Côte d’Ivoire.

After years of an untenable stalemate, in December 2006 the rebellion and the Government of Côte d’Ivoire entered a series of talks, which found a successful conclusion in the March 2007 Ouagadougou Agreements. They provided for a power-sharing deal between the rebellion and the Government. In the interest of peace, Guillaume Soro was appointed Prime Minister of Côte d’Ivoire. At the time of his appointment, he was 34 years old.



[1] Student life might look wonderful/But it’s fraught with problems/When you see a student, he makes you envious /always well dressed/handsome without beauty products (produits ghanéens)/When you get to know him intimately though, you see his real problems/Good Lord what have we done to deserve such a fate?/And it is this prayer to God that has brought Zouglou to life/A philosophical dance allowing students to meditate and forget about the harshness of life/Let’s dance Zouglou!

[2] Gazeur: a word borrowed from nouchi (language of the street), referring to the animators of the party scene in Abidjan, which has got its own rules and hierarchies.

[3] Côcôs aren’t serious people/côcôs aren’t kind people/Do you know who they are?/Côcôs are people who live out of other people’s pockets/These are the côcôs.


[4] Politics, you are an assassin!/Can’t you see all these countries at war, just because of you?/Politics murderous politics!/See Angola/See Rwanda/See Somalia/All countries at war because of you!


[5] You know who I am?/If an Ivorian asks you: ‘you know who I am’/he means to say/he is more of an Ivorian than you/That’s Ivoirité for you/In primary school/the history of Queen Pokou/We were told that Akan people had migrated from Ghana/To run away from warfare/just as the Krou came from Liberia (for the same reasons)/And together we made a beautiful country/with no strife (…)


This story is in print as part of Chimurenga Vol. 15: The Curriculum is Everything (available here).

Presented in the form of a textbook, Chimurenga 15 asks what could the curriculum be – if it was designed by the people who dropped out of school so that they could breathe?

Share this post:

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial