BURKINA FASO: Victor Démé - Victor Démé
Updated: Apr 10
Marxist policy often suppresses creative freedom, Démé's distinguished self-titled album proves itself as the exception to this rule
Over the weekend Burkina Faso has entered into the global consciousness under rather tragic consequences, when the country suffered their worst attack of militant violence in many years, as over 160 people have been confirmed as killed in the village of Solhan. Despite increased insecurity in the Sahelian country, politically the country has remained relatively stable for decades. Though a controversial figure, some might argue this is partially due to the legacy of their first President Thomas Sankara whose time in charge embodies the values that many Burkinabés agree on, even years after his assassination. The consequences of Sankara’s legacy are vast and most certainly extend to the world of music. One could even make the case that this hauntingly beautiful album by Victor Démé would never have happened were it not for the man dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara”.
“The album on its own terms is an immense and complete piece of music that translates deep emotion whilst also astounding its audience due to Démé’s sheer talent...”
Throughout this project we have featured numerous artists who have had a go at politics after they have made their name as a successful musician. For example, the likes of Susana Baca in Peru, Sabri Fejzullahu in Kosovo and Youssou N’Dour in Senegal all had political careers after their rise to fame in their respective homelands through music. However, very few countries’ leaders have had genuine love affairs with music as a passion, or even a job, without being launched into national stardom for their music first. Though one might reference former British Prime Minister Ted Heath or former Croatian President Ivo Josipovic’s involvement in the classical music world before taking highest office in both nations, there is arguably not a country on earth that has had leaders with as strong a connection to music as Burkina Faso’s.
In the 1970s, when Upper Volta was under French colonialist rule, the nations’ first two presidents, Sankara and Blaise Compaoré were part of Tout-à-Coup Jazz. Sankara, a skilled guitarist, had a genuine passion for music and once he took office as President changed the landscape for many domestic musicians. Despite the spread of Marxist philosophy across the region, which for good or for bad often interfered with the musical landscape in many West African nations in the post-colonial era such as Benin, Guinea, and Cape Verde, Sankara recognised the importance of making his homeland a burgeoning hub for music where quality artists could develop. Sankara was the only African leader to have embraced the legend of music, politics, and life itself, Fela Kuti, who after Sankara's assassination by former Tout-à-Coup Jazz and fellow guerrilla militant Compaoré, wrote a song in Sankara’s honour.
Whilst Sankara was by no means a perfect President, by the end of his life demonstrating autocratic tendencies in banning the free press and banning trade unions, he is remembered best for his work on gender equality, social policy and environmentalism. Yet, listening to Victor Démé’s self-titled record, one cannot help but feel that his impact on the world of music is something that has gone under the radar. Were it not for Sankara’s shift in policy, allowing Burkina Faso to finally start to forge its own proud national identity in which prospering its music culture was encouraged, it is unlikely that Démé ever would have returned to his homeland to try to make it as a musician. Four years before Démé’s return to Burkina Faso from the Ivory Coast where he sought refuge as a teenager, Sankara said the following at the United Nations: “I speak on behalf of artists… poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and actors… who see their art prostituted by the alchemy of slow-business tricks”. Often we have seen those with a communist agenda wish to homogenise culture and censor self-expression, but Sankara’s intentions were clearly different.
Though the desert land in Burkina Faso is not so fertile, Sankara’s policies of creating an array of festivals, venues and spaces for musicians allowed for a bountiful crop of music artists to discover their own talents, creating a scene that mirrors that of neighbouring Mali which typically gets all the plaudits from outsiders. Démé came back to his homeland full of beans, with the energy and the freedom to explore different musical styles and managed to create a style known as ‘Tradi-Moderne’. This hybrid genre of old Mandinka styles, alongside newer external influences of blues and Latin rhythms can be heard clearly in his masterful 2008 album. Yet, despite all the praise of Sankara for building the foundations for musicians’ creative expression, one has to question why under such circumstances did it take so long for Démé to breakthrough on the global scene. His staunch anti-commercialist philosophy made it very difficult for artists to make a healthy living producing their own work despite some of their immense talent. Regardless of receiving a range of accolades, Démé found himself playing covers of neighbouring countries’ legends of music, such as Salif Keita, decades after his arrival back home. This stark comparison between the Malian’s illustrious career and Démé’s is a somewhat sad one, as although both have a similar level of natural talent, one was financially rewarded and got to enjoy the perks of international recognition in life merely as an accident of birth.
Despite this criticism of Sankara’s potential delaying of Démé’s deserved success, the messages behind much of the lyrics on the album clearly have their links in Sankaraism. Sung in Dyula, Démé includes tracks dedicated to the role that women played in the formation of Sankara’s inclusive creation and development of the state in Burkina Mousso. His appreciation of womankind is not a one off, as Démé just generally heralds the role of women in Sabu. Musically, both tracks contain the constant simplistic beauty that is heard throughout the album – glorious guitar and striking vocals. The song that shot Démé to international stardom, however, was Djôn'Maya. Just listening to the song, one can easily understand why the bluesy number which lyrically is about spreading tolerance catapulted Démé into the wider public consciousness. Nevertheless, my favourite song on the album is Deni Kemba. There is something wonderfully wistful about this track and though I am not quite aware of the meaning of the lyrics, the song translates a unique sense of optimistic melancholy which is no mean feat when sung in a language I do not speak. I love the soft additions of the horns in this track which book-end each verse in such a lovely manner.
Whilst most of the tracks are on the softer side, some of the final tracks, Tama Ngonon and Dala Môgôya, include a balafon which slightly changes the tone of the album, ensuring that the record does not remain a monotonous acoustic piece. Though the album is at its peak on tracks like Toungan, Chérie, Deni Mouke Ila (genuinely all 10/10 tracks) as well as the aforementioned Djôn'Maya and Deni Kemba, the whole record is something of a masterpiece. The album on its own terms is an immense and complete piece of music that translates deep emotion whilst also astounding its audience due to Démé’s sheer talent; add in the extra hypothesis that one of Africa’s greatest politicians inadvertently had a huge part to play in the creation of Démé’s magnum opus, and one can only be left feeling intrigued, impressed, and inspired.