Conquers New York
Interview and translation to English by
additional questions by Seth
Koffi Olomide outside Lincoln
Center - Photo by Seth Cashman
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
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.
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
So were you primarily composing and not yet giving a shot at performing
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!
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?
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.
Koffi Olomide at Lincoln Center -
Photo by Seth Cashman
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?
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.
So what would be the immediate obstacle that you see ahead of you on this
trip to America?
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
Yes, we agree.
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.
Now, you did tour the USA in 1994, so how was that tour different?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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,
And how would you describe modern music from the Congo to your new
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.
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?
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.
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
Koffi Olomide and Quartier Latin's
latest - "Force de Frappe"
The live double CD from the
groundbreaking "Live a Bercy" show
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.
Are you planning any duets, such as your song "Si Si Si" with
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
On "Attentat" you experimented with several more commercial sounding
tracks. Could we expect more of that direction as well on the new
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
Where else are you currently touring right now?
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.
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.
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.
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: