Roots | Alpha Blondy

Irie Magazine | Roots | Alpha Blondy

Alpha Blondy

Chronicle: January 1, 1953

Alpha Blondy is among the world’s most popular reggae artists. With his 12-piece band “Solar System”, Blondy offers a reggae beat with a distinctive African cast. Some of his best known songs include Cocody Rock, Jerusalem and Apartheid Is Nazism. Over the years, the man who put Ivory Coast on the reggae map by proving the genre was not exclusive to Jamaica, has remained close to his mission to dispense a message of peace and reconciliation (he has been nominated Ambassador for the peace in Ivory Cost by the United Nation).

Born Seydou Kone in Dimbokoro, Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Africa, Alpha Blondy is truly an international reggae artist. His mix of cultures and musical styles carried him to the top of his profession. Along the way he has recorded with The Wailers, headlined international venues and released a series of albums that argue for a multi-cultural understanding, preach peace and address political turmoil and social strife. Though recently sidelined by a serious case of malaria, his latest album retains the world-spanning vision that helped establish him.

The cultural mix is natural to Alpha Blondy—in his homeland Christians and Muslims intermarry and retain mutual respect for each other’s culture. He sings in several African tongues, French, Hebrew and Arabic and draws from all religions in his lyrics, but one of his greatest unifying accomplishments has been a seamless marriage of rock and roll, reggae and world music. Alpha Blondy grew up listening to American rock and formed his first band, covering Creedence Clearwater Revival, among other rock and reggae artists, in high school. This freewheeling stance was not always appreciated by his parents, and at one point while attending college in New York, he was institutionalized in an attempt to put him on a straight and narrow path. On return to the Ivory Coast, he formed another band and appeared on a televised talent show, which resulted in his first album, Jah Glory (1982 Syllart) being issued in Africa, backed by his band the Natty Rebels. On another release, this time out of France, S.O.S. Tribal War (1986 Melodie), Alpha Blondy was backed by his touring band, the Solar System.

The Solar System continued to back him on a series of international releases, beginning with Apartheid Is Nazism (1987 Shanachie), which addressed God in myriad forms with songs like “Jah Houphouet,” “Sebe Allah Ye” and “Come Back Jesus.” Cocody Rock (1988 Shanachie) took the same blended approach to music he took toward religion, with seductive rhythms from the Caribbean, elements of African highlife and rock and roll joined as if they had never separated. Revolution (1989 Shanachie) moved even more confidently in a direction of synthesis. During this time he also had the opportunity to record with the late Bob Marley’s band The Wailers (they had worked with him a few years earlier on the song “Cocody Rock”), and they back him for the entirety of the album Jerusalem (1988 Shanachie). No matter how many languages you speak, you won’t have any trouble understanding songs like “Boulevard de la Mort,” “Bloodshed In Africa” or “Kalachnikov Love.” Anyone who saw him live in the late eighties witnessed one of the most amazing performances in all of reggae, as Alpha Blondy swept across the stage, sometimes literally with a Bible in one hand and the Koran in the other. At his shows he would sing a message of hope and peace in multiple languages that tried to cut through the confusion of Middle East complexities and get to the core necessity of people of all creeds and colors learning to live with each other. If only the rest of the world had been listening.

The Best of Alpha Blondy (1990 Shanachie) gathered singles and high points from his releases on that label including the previously unissued “Rasta Poue” with The Wailers. His next album, The Prophets (1990 Capitol) featured songs like “Jah Music” and “Coup d’etat.” Masada (1992 EMI) was a career high point; the title song is a moving telling of the meaning behind the Jewish historical event, and “Desert Storm” taking the Western nations to task for their treatment of the Arab world. He brilliantly incorporated African and Middle Eastern elements with the one-drop reggae rhythms and rock guitar tones that made his music so appealing. Though his music will always be categorized as reggae, this was World Music at its best. Live Au Zenith (Paris) (1993 EMI) is a stellar documentation of his live shows, in which he admonishes hypocrisy, mesmerizes with intensity and gets the crowd up and moving in one breathless sweep.

On Dieu (1994 World Pacific) Alpha Blondy continued his practice of writing and singing in various dialects and tongues, embedding his message with the very idea that we might have to work a little to try and understand people in other parts of the world. His peace activism was at the forefront of Yitzhak Rabin (1998 Tuff Gong), where he again calls for the various cultures of the world to unite. Elohim (2005 Shanachie) was actually recorded in 1999, though not released in the U.S. for many years. It includes some of the most uncompromising songs of his career, such as “Dictature,” “Take No Prisoners” and “Journalists In Danger.” Paris Bercy (2001 Shanachie) catches us up on his live show nearly a decade after his first live release, with a double-disc set that includes songs from his recent releases. On Merci (2002 Shanachie), recorded at Studio Harryson in Paris, he gives thanks through his songs, including “God Bless Africa.”

Health problems seemed to dog Alpha Blondy during this time, resulting in a number of show cancellations, including two projected West Coast sweeps. The music he released was as great as that from the early portion of his career, but the stunning shows that captivated club, arena and festival crowds were few and far between. Travel restrictions and complications in the post-911 environment may have also contributed to difficulties in mounting world tours, especially for an artist whose roots were in the Muslim world. The very narrow-mindedness he railed against throughout his career may to some degree have taken its toll on his ability to get his message of peace to the world.

Alpha Blondy began a new world tour just as Jah Victory (2007 Mediacom) was coming out. The tour began in Hawaii and was winding its way to the West Coast when a double-punch of malaria and pneumonia cut it short and he was forced to return to Africa to recuperate. Recorded in Paris at Studio Marcadet and in Jamaica at Tuff Gong—with Sly and Robbie, Chinna Smith, Tyrone Downie and Sticky Thompson aboard for the Kingston sessions, the album is predominantly delivered in French, with some songs African dialects and the album opener “I Wish You Were Here” and the sweet “Jah Light” in English. One of the disc’s outstanding cuts is “Sales Racistes,” utilizing the “riddim” and melody of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads” to great effect. Once again, the reggae artist with the broadest sweep of musical and cultural influences has managed to inject new life into a form he helped to move forward at a time when Jamaican music was crying out for roots and culture from the motherland.

Vision released in 2011 is pure, vintage Blondy – politically conscious and lovingly fine-tuned. As usual Alpha produced, wrote and sang the whole of this visionary album, with the help of The Solar System, his faithful gang of musicians from Barbados, France, Ivory Coast and Jamaica, shining through the glimmering brass parts, brazen rhythms, hypnotic basslines.

Mystic Power was released in 2013 and also features the virtuosity of sound experts as Dennis Bovell and prestigious guests as Beenie Man. It is still Roots, Rock, Reggae tinged with African and Jamaican flavor !! Last year saw the release of Alpha Blondy’s Positive Energy which includes combinations with Ijahman Levi, Tarrus Riley, Ismael Isaac and others.