Koffi Olomide Conquers New York

Interview and translation to English by Hortense Fuller

Photographs and additional questions by Seth Cashman

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Koffi Olomide outside Lincoln Center - Photo by Seth Cashman

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Koffi Olomide is one of Africa's most celebrated musicians.  He is arguably regarded as the most popular musician throughout Africa and Europe since Franco and Fela.  In June, AfricaSounds.com was granted the opportunity to meet privately with Koffi Olomide for an interview and photo shoot while he visited New York for press meetings.  The interview that follows is one of the first published interviews of Olomide in the USA.

Year after year, Koffi Olomide has consistently outshone the competition, producing the top selling albums in African music that have set a benchmark for quality while capturing the adoration and attention of the commercial public.  Koffi Olomide has also acted as the guide for fellow African musicians, selling out renowned the Paris concert halls Olympia and most recently Bercy Stadium.  Others, such as Youssou N'dour, Alpha Blondy and J.B. Mpiana, have followed in Olomide's wake of  stadium tours.

This reality makes Koffi Olomide's current status in the U.S.A. all the more fascinating.  Many of the African music and "world-beat" fans in the U.S.A. have not yet had the opportunity to witness Koffi Olomide.   On July 16, 2001, New York finally witnessed the return of Koffi Olomide and his big band Quartier Latin after a lapse of seven years.  A full-length live review of Olomide's performance at Lincoln Center Festival 2001 will follow in the coming weeks.  

As Koffi Olomide explains in this interview, he has not yet had the chance to conquer North America as he has done in both Europe and Africa.  His 1994 tour was not well organized and thus not up to his expectations.  And Olomide never did form the strategic alliances with American and British pop stars and record companies as did many of his colleagues.  Thus, in the U.S.A., he is not yet perceived as the superstar that he is to the rest of the world.  That is all set to change this year, in 2001.

This time around, Koffi Olomide has the backing of Lincoln Center, with its clout and outstanding promotions.  Olomide is serious about changing all of this.  And if things go as planned, we should be seeing a lot more of "le grand Mopao" in the near future.

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AfricaSounds.com:  There has not been much discussion in the USA about how you began your career in the music business.  Could you give us a quick account of that?

Koffi Olomide:  Ok, I started by composing songs while I was a student. I had caught a metaphorical virus – the musical virus – but according to my father, this idea that I was to become a singer and musician, was completely out of the question. You see, every one of my father’s children were to become someone who was considered serious and well-respected in Zaire. But alas, I started to compose, and then shortly after starting to compose, many celebrated singers from my country (during that time my country was still called Zaire) became interested in me and my compositions because they were able to find a unique quality within my songs. As a result, a lot of my early compositions were sung and published by the leading Congolese singers of that era. And thus, everyone – musicians and the Congolese public - learned that it was Koffi Olomide who had composed these songs, and I was soon afterwards given the nickname "the most famous student in Zaire!"

The flyer from the Lincoln Center event         

AfricaSounds:  So were you primarily composing and not yet giving a shot at performing yourself?

Koffi Olomide:  You see, during that period of time, I was a student in the French city of Bordeaux, concentrating my studies on Commercial Science. When I finished my studies and was waiting to find a job, my friends and my brother advised me to try out recording some of my music. So while I was waiting to have a steady job, my friends and my brother advised me to try out recording, on my own, in a professional studio. So I was in the studio, and I recorded and it was from that moment until the present time that I have become the singer that I am. Voila, that is my little history!

AfricaSounds.com:  And since then, you career has turned into an incredible success, by our accounts you are the most popular modern African musician in Africa and Europe.  If you had to highlight a couple milestones that represent this success, what would they be?

Koffi Olomide:  As an evidence that things are still working well, even now, I have received almost all the awards of my country in Africa. To better explain, I would like to highlight two awards that I have won that mean the most to me. The first was the Kora in South Africa. In 1998, I won the Best Artist in Africa award and I highlight the Kora because it was the first time in Africa that the people chose – I was not chosen by a committee, but rather the public – they polled the public by phone all over Africa. In the Best Artist in Africa category there were many candidates: Papa Wemba, Defao, several other artists from Cameroon, in total there were five or six candidates.

So, they asked public everywhere from Africa to call to choose the best African singer and I personally appreciate this award because, for me, it is the most important. It shows that I was chosen by the general public, not by a committee. So I was chosen by the people. And I also appreciate this award because when the results came in, the difference between my winning position and the runner-up second place was very large.

So this was a very big award for me to win, it was broadcast live throughout Africa and to other parts of the world. This highlights something important that I want to discuss. Often there are certain artists who are very strategically managed, many of whom have very excellent reputations abroad [Europe or America] by maintaining good reputations with the you [the foreign press] and as a result are far more well-known abroad. But it is because of this exposure that the public likes them more than some other artists. We have not had this chance to have these good, supportive relationships. There are people who are known by Peter Gabriel, people like that, who have these connections, but artists such as myself have not been as fortunate in having that chance. It is for this reason that I highlighted the Kora award as it reveals who are really popular within Africa.

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Koffi Olomide at Lincoln Center - Photo by Seth Cashman

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AfricaSounds.com:  Yes, recently there has been some talk here about this reality in African music - perceptions in the USA of who is popular versus the reality in Africa.   It seems, though, that in Europe you have been able to achieve tremendous notoriety with your music?

Koffi Olomide:   To best respond to that, I would highlight the fact that I was the first African to sell out Bercy Stadium in Paris. At the time, no one could believe that an African could play there and in doing so, fill up all 20,000 seats in Bercy Stadium. No one believed it, but we did it! After Koffi Olomide and Quartier Latin sold out Bercy, there have already been two or three or four African singers, very well known here in America because they have the correct marketing, foreign music contracts, and they also tried to follow suit and do as I had done at Bercy. But they did not succeed in selling out the Stadium. But that is all I will say. If you want, you can do your research and explain this to the public.

I say all of these important things because I really want to meet the American public. I am not talking about meeting only the African public who are living in America. Instead, I am talking about everyone who likes music, everyone who is open to new music. My goal is to have the American public come to our show, meet us, listen to our music, discover it, and then make the decision if they like and appreciate it or not. In the end the public will make their own choice.

 However, I am sure that if my music gets the chance to be heard in America… if I am given the opportunity to meet the American public in a good meeting, with good conditions, then I am sure that if I present to them my music, at least 60% of the people will appreciate it. And that is all I ask.

AfricaSounds.com:  So what would be the immediate obstacle that you see ahead of you on this trip to America?

Koffi Olomide:  My problem today is that I have nobody - no strategic connections - here in America. I have not been on TV here, so I have not had the same chance as some of my colleagues to gain the necessary exposure that will make me well known here. But I am not unhappy, because I am sure that God has given me the necessary talent to succeed. I believe that if I have this opportunity to meet the American public, they will be positively surprised by my music and performance and come away from the concert with a very positive perception.

Koffi Olomide - Photo by Seth Cashman

AfricaSounds.com:  Yes, we agree.

Koffi Olomide:  I am very happy to hear that, but my problem is not whether you agree with me, because you already know me and my work, rather, my challenge is to meet the American people here so that they can experience me and my music.

AfricaSounds.com:  Now, you did tour the USA in 1994, so how was that tour different?

Koffi Olomide:  Now, I was here six to seven years ago for a tour, but it was not the type of tour that I like. It was a Congolese tour in America for Congolese people living in America. It was something wrong. I do not want to do this same type of tour again.

My goal and challenge today is to first meet American fans of music, and while doing that also perform for the Africans who are living in America. I do not want to meet only African people on my tour as that alone does not interest me.

AfricaSounds.com:  So with your gig at Lincoln Center, and the other concerts that are surrounding that event, it looks like you might be getting the chance to do it again but differently?

Koffi Olomide:  Yes, this time it will be different. That is why I am so happy about this opportunity to perform here at Lincoln Center for the Africa Out Loud music festival. I think this is a big thing and I am very proud to have been chosen for this festival. My first tour was a tour for Africans here living here, and the advertising was not done for everyone to learn about my show.. I like that part of my audience too, I respect them. But for me I cannot have any limits for my music. I must get everywhere, to touch everyone who likes music.

AfricaSounds.com:  So what would you ask of the American public who may be encountering you, your band Quartier Latin and your music for the very first time?

Koffi Olomide:  I want to ask the American fans to take time with my music, to listen to our music with consideration. To be patient and to give us a chance. To listen and give us time. We are different, we are not R&B musicians, we are not Rap musicians. But I am sure that if they listen to our music, they will get something very good out of it and have a good time with our music. That is what I would like you to tell them, please.

AfricaSounds.com:  And how would you describe modern music from the Congo to your new audience?

Koffi Olomide:  First, there is no one Congolese music. You must explain to Americans that Congolese music must be referred to in plural, as there are many, many Congolese musics and styles. For example, Tshala Muana plays Mutuashi while we play modern Congolese music. It would be better yet to say that there are many different African musics. You see, in Congo there are between 200 and 300 different music styles. There are so many music styles in Congo that I do not even understand and know them all! There are even rhythms that I do not know and that I don’t understand. Thus you must explain to the American public that there are multiple music styles in Congo.

AfricaSounds.com:  What direction do you see the music heading in today?  Particularly many of the younger musicians who are proliferating the marketplace.  Do you like what you are observing?

Koffi Olomide:  Today’s young musicians I am lukewarm on. They seem to tell people that we, as musicians, are only out there to make people dance. That is not true, as musicians, we can touch emotions with our music as well. As I do with my music. But sometimes the youth seem to forget to show this more delicate aspect of our music, the emotional, touching side. That is why I say that I am somewhat happy, but not completely happy about their success. As I said, we have many, many different Congolese musics, and not all of them are only there to make people dance. The dancing can be a very good thing, but it is not everything to our music. So, as musicians, we have a role and a job to preserve this emotional, touching side of our music.

AfricaSounds.com:  And what about the abundance of animateur-influenced music?

Koffi Olomide:  Oh, that is very banal! It is completely without research and roots! I am against these sort of things, it give the wrong image of our music. This 100% sebene music has no research, no intensity, nothing. All it is is only "N’dombolo - N’dombolo" from the beginning to the end.

I am a composer, first and foremost. I arrange my music and believe in a real, true music that has a soul and a heart, a music that has a beginning and an end. A completely different feeling than this commercial sebene music that I am against. But if the youths have some success with this music, then good time for them! No problem with that. But I still prefer that we give a better image for our many Congolese musics.

Koffi Olomide and Quartier Latin's latest - "Force de Frappe"





The live double CD from the groundbreaking "Live a Bercy" show





The Attentat CD


AfricaSounds.com:  Your recent albums have received some positive responses from the public.  What can we expect looking forward from Koffi Olomide?

Koffi Olomide:  The last group album was "Force de Frappe," performed with my group Quartier Latin, and before that we released the album "Attentat."

And right now I am preparing my new Koffi album, for the end of this year. It will be called "Efrakata" and it will be my own album for this year. I will sing, really sing to try to give emotion to people. I will also make them dance. So I will do my job, but I cannot say that everything will be new and different. It will be a Koffi Olomide album with new things, but not everything completely new. My father used to tell me that "everything new is not necessarily better." And I think sometimes that his saying is right.

By listening to my new album, the public will recognize my soul and my identity… Koffi Olomide.

AfricaSounds.com:  Are you planning any duets, such as your song "Si Si Si" with Coumba Gawlo?

Koffi Olomide:  One of my dreams is to have an American girl in a duet. I can think of several of them… for instance, the girl in the middle from Destiny Child… or Whitney Houston…. Or Janet Jackson…. or, if I dream very, very strong, Jennifer Lopez. I do not know if she sings very well, but, introduce me to her!

AfricaSounds.com:  On "Attentat" you experimented with several more commercial sounding tracks.  Could we expect more of that direction as well on the new album?

Koffi Olomide:  Yes, there were songs like Chocolat, African Kings and of course Si Si Si. It was a new direction for me, that is as I said, not everything will be new, but there will be some new elements in my albums. Including if I have Jennifer Lopez, everyone will be very happy.

AfricaSounds.com:  Where else are you currently touring right now?  

Koffi Olomide:  This summer in Europe we have a big tour all over Europe, North Africa, Kenya and of course America. On the horizon, our next large European venue will be Parc des Princes, it is a very big stadium in Paris. There are about 71,000 seats! I am previewing this concert for next year. Please come! Oh, we have also just released the first Congolese DVD video of our last group album "Force de Frappe." The DVD is being sold in Europe.


AfricaSounds.com:  Koffi, we would really like to thank you for your time today.  To wrap up our interview, would you please describe your self-made music style, Tcha Tcho, to our readers in your own words?  After all, it is this sound which makes your music different from all the rest.

Koffi Olomide:  I don’t know if I will be able to explain it perfectly in words but I will try. Tcha Tcho is a style, a way of creating music that comes from the heart. You see, I would not be able to sing for a lever of soap. I must feel what I am singing. That’s Tcha Tcho. It means ‘let’s be true – authentic - every time.’ That is Tcha Thco. I am different, I have class. And I think that only doing like that will stay forever in the publics mind. It is an attitude and way of life, a way of doing music differently. I am not making music for a fad or stylistic mode, I am doing it to last for ever.

The AfricaSounds.com Archives

In addition to this feature on Koffi Olomide, please visit our archives for a live concert reportage  by Martin Sinnock of Koffi Olomide's birthday party last August in Paris.  The feature can be accessed at the following link: 

bullet Koffi Olomide Birthday Feature