Jess Sah Bi & Peter One

World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 8


“It made a different touch on people’s hearts.”

About this Episode

Jess Sah Bi & Peter One, musicians from Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, recall hearing the harmonies and guitars of Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens for the first time and how that impacted their music from that point onward. In our conversation they take us through the creation of their landmark African-Country-Folk inspired album Our Garden Needs Its Flowers from their initial search for a producer to now the recent reissue, 30 years later, by Awesome Tapes From Africa.

John Gardner: Hello hello and welcome again to the world music foundation podcast, I’m your host John Gardner. And today we speak with Jess Sah Bi and Peter One the Ivory Coast guitar/vocal duo behind the landmark album “Our Garden Needs It’s Flowers.”

Hello to you both

Jess Sah Bi: Hello

Peter One: Hey

John: We have two voices so for our listeners we’ll help get them clear if you could each just say hello, say your name individually so we know which is which.

Jess: Jess Sah Bi – San Francisco California

Peter: Hello, this is Peter One talking from Nashville Tennessee

John: Great. So you two, obviously at some point, back in the eighties from what I understand, you two came together and you played similar styles of music as each other right and this was in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire?

Peter: Yes that’s right

John: Now when you first got together, where you had your instruments. What did you all play, what were some of the songs you played when you met each other?

Jess: I don’t completely remember but it started from me playing a similar style of music. My nephew invited me to their place and we started playing together. We didn’t have a really strong set-up, but we used to play and get together. Playing each others songs and then going from there.

John: What kind of music were you playing?

Jess: Just acoustic guitar. It’s close to country but it’s our traditional way of singing. It’s kind of different from what other people in our country do. Close to a folk song or a country song.

John: When you say folk or country do you mean from the Ivory Coast?

Jess: Yes from the Ivory Coast. We used arpeggios on the guitar which is a bit different from what they do in the Ivory Coast. The way we sing and play, the melody and playing really slow. The vibe is very different from someone who plays in the Ivory Coast.

Peter: Of course we knew some of the classics of pop music and folk, American pop and folk. But when we met we were not playing those songs. We were playing our own compositions. Like you just said, with acoustic guitars and vocals. The style was closer to American folk and British folk than pure African music. The only thing was we were singing in our own language. The beats were like American folk music but the lyrics were in French or in a different language. It was only later on that we started doing songs in English.

John: So you both come together, you’re both from different cities but university brought you to Abidjan. And you both happen to know these American folk songs, American country songs but you’re also composing your own music inspired by this American music. So I’d like you all to take us back, if you could, before that if you don’t mind. Go all the way back: origin story. What brought you to that point? What were your first musical memories? When was the first time you heard this American music? So who would like to go first– take us all the way back to childhood and your first experiences with music.

Peter: Jess you wanna go? Or me?

Jess: You go

Peter: Ok, so I started playing American pop and folk, like songs from Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens, because American was really popular in the Ivory Coast. We used to hear these songs on the radio, it used to play a lot of American music. Of course American music is scattered around the world. The promotion is stronger than other music. We used to hear that a lot, on the TV also. So we had these kind of connections. It was this kind of time among the young people who liked music, it was kind of time to show your friends that you know how to play guitar when you are able to and play a song from like Jimi Hendrix, playing the way he plays. Or “Hey Jude,” things like that. The Beatles. “Let It Be.” So that was a way to show your friends that you are on the same page, you’re not behind.

John: And what age was that, when you started hearing American music on TV?

Peter: Very early, very very early. As early as 6 years old. But I didn’t play guitar until I was 16 or 17.

John: And it was the American music that turned you on to the guitar?

Peter: Exactly. Because the pop music was really popular. And to tell you the truth there wasn’t much folk or country music on the radio, it was more pop, more soul. And country was breaking through once in a while like with Paul Simon, The Beatles. And that’s what caught me right there because the first time I heard “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel it just made something in my mind. I liked it right there. I remember it was maybe when I was 12 or 13, something like that.

John: So that’s the song that started the inspiration. You heard the difference between that and rock & roll and said hey there’s something here?

Peter: Exactly

John: What kind of music did your parents listen to? Did they like this foreign music that was being played also? Or did they have their traditional music they were listening to?

Peter: They were more listening to Ivorian, African music, local music, because the other music was not really in their ears. They were not used to it. They listened more to things they could understand, you know? They could understand the message.

Peter: Even if there is at least a beat they can hear it– like even James Bond music. The way the beat, the way the rhythm is warm. It’s a beat that makes you shake. They like that because of the beat. But they don’t understand. But when you bring in country and folk music, slower music they don’t… It just passes by.

John: Skip that.

Peter: Mmhmm.

John: Makes a lot of sense. Do you remember some of the popular Ivorian musicians at the time or acts? What kind of music was being played locally?

Peter: Jess, wanna talk to? Don’t want to monopolize.

John: Yeah, we can do that with Jess. I’d like to hear your story also, like the first time you listened to music that was not from the Ivory Coast or from Africa, or your family, what was being played in the house. Your musical background.

Jess: I think my musical background started when I was really young. I remember my grandmother had a disc player, a vinyl player. And we used to listen in the village to a great musician, I’m trying to remember — he’s passed away now, from America — and he was playing some kind of music that was kind of cool. I learned how to play music with my brother, who was a musician, he played guitar. I’m a fan of music. My father was a singer. I mean all this kind of family business. I learned myself when I must have been in High School, so I got a guitar and started playing. There was a group at that time when I was in high school called ??? young guys whose style was like Rock & Roll, like Jimi Hendrix. They came to my school and I was impressed, they way they played and sang, I really liked it. So I got my guitar and started composing my own songs just like the way they were singing. Later on —— “No Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley. I was a singer for a group but I couldn’t go at that time away from the village. So I started playing more and composing my own songs. I listened, one day, to the group Simon and Garfunkel and it really blew my mind the way they were singing. From there I found that was something I could use. I didn’t have a mentor or someone to look up to. Everything came from my mind and the traditional songs, the way I’m singing, from listening to the radio. I developed my own style from there. I don’t like to copy other people.

John: You have too many musical ideas of your own, you have to get those out right?

Jess: Yes

John: I see, and did you eventually make it on TV, were you playing on TV?

Jess: Yes I was on TV when I was very young, 15 years old.

John: And was that TV show specifically showing local musicians?

Jess: I think they had, I can remember —– something like that —– at the end of the show

John: Great so then, when you two met what year was that?

Peter: 1979

John: And the album was released in 85 and you two started making music together. And it was different because it was acoustic, influenced my some of the harmonies of American country and folk. What were some of the most popular genres of music when your album came out or when you all were making music together?

Jess: There was Don Williams. He was one who was really popular. Especially because every morning they played his music. He’s been covered by the whole nation. That was a style that we used to play every morning. — We got asked one day to record on the radio and it got played every morning after that.

John: Oh wow so they played your music. This was after the album came out?

Jess: Before

John: Did you record demos and send them out?

Peter: Shortly after we met we recorded a couple songs on National TV and national radio stations because we had some connections there already from having competed in a contest. He met them through something kind of like “Ivorian’s Got Talent”…

John: Oh really, so did you record demos or and send it to the different tv stations, the different radio stations, how did they hear you?

Jess: It was the national radio station.

Peter: Shortly after we met, we recorded a couple of songs at the national TV and also at the national radio station because Jess had some connections there already for having past experience in some contest, we were just talking about some contest, he participated in Ivorian talents. He had those connections. So when we started playing together, he got the opportunity to record some of our songs so they can play that sometime, and they did. They did play it sometimes on the TV or the national radio early in the morning. That’s how we started. People didn’t know us, but they knew us from the songs. And then as time went by, we had more shows here and there and also at the TV and radio stations and along that, one of the radio hosts Asha Kawa? started playing Don Williams songs. Yeah, Don Williams, he started playing that. So from the early 80s, I would say 1980, 82, 83, to 85, they had injected the country music on the radio, on the early morning shows at the radio station and that was one of the jobs of this guy Asha Kawa. He did that. And that really helped us because it helped people identify us to the American music. Because when we started we were not saying we did country music. We were just playing music! Just seeing how it comes. And people identify us through what they use to hear through the radio, Don Williams.

John: So they start getting requests to play your music because they say oh it sounds like that Don Williams. So now they have something to call it, they say oh that’s country music.  And then was it the same DJ that was playing Don Williams that played your music every morning?

Peter: No it was different DJs.

John: And you said national radio, so was there only one radio station that the whole country listened to?

Peter: Yes. That helped us a lot, until the 90s, I would say early or mid 1990s, we had only radio station in the Ivory Coast, one TV station. National. It was the national TV and national radio. Until 1992, we had only one radio station and national TV. So it was through those that people could hear everything.

John: Yeah so i can imagine you start getting a lot of airplay on that one station, that’s definitely going to take off. That’s going to get big pretty fast. That makes sense. So what was it like between this time, you’re getting well known, your music is getting well known, like you say you start getting more concerts. What made you decide to make an album? What enabled you to make an album? Had you been wanting to before that, make an album, and that was just the first opportunity or that was the first time you got the idea?

Peter: Personally, when I started playing guitar I wasn’t even thinking of being a superstar or a star, I wasn’t thinking of being famous. I never thought about it. I was just playing because I liked music, that’s it. Until 1993, when one of the musicians, music stars, Alpha Blondy, made his breakthrough in this field. He had this huge huge success on his very first album. That made something in my mind: why? Because he had his chance from a contest at the national TV and that contest was Premiere Chance. It’s true, when he went to Premiere Chance he played two or three songs and when they started playing those songs on the TV that was his national success, world success, right there. But before he recorded, we were the group who had the opportunity to be the first ones to be heard. We had the opportunity to be invited by the host of this show, when we went there to record, we waited for the guy to come so we could go to the studio and start recording. And as we were waiting, one guy came and left us there. He came with his friend, his friend was the guitar player, and he was the singer. We didn’t know him. He was singing like crap–

John: Like what?

Peter: He was singing like crap, like crap! It was dirty! Yeah! And from time to time, he was asking his friend, his guitar player to play like this. And he started a song. And he wasn’t sounding good, and we were all waiting. And then they came and said I’m sorry we cannot record today because we are missing some equipment so let’s postpone this to another day. So we left there, and we never came back because me, I had to go to a remote place for my job, I started teaching there, I had to go, I couldn’t make it to the studio again to record. So this guy was singing dirty, and this guy was Alpha Blondy.

John: Oh Alpha Blondy!

Peter: You understand where I’m going?

John: In a matter of minutes, or hours, if this would’ve worked, it would’ve been you.

Peter: It would’ve been us. But it was him, And he did a great great job. The recording was perfect, he did things very well. Not what we heard when he was sitting with us. So Alpha Blondy had a huge success. So from somebody that was sitting right next to us, he wasn’t singing good, and the next day he becomes a superstar? C’mon man, we can do it! That’s how the idea came to my mind.

John: But how did you take back that opportunity? You had to leave to go to this remote place to teach. How do you keep the dream alive?

Peter: From that point, we started looking for people to help us produce our first album. Right?

Jess: Yeah. From my point of view of this, coming to the music, I wanted to be popular. That was 15 years ago. Some one my people could see, I wanted to be accepted wherever I go. Really that was my mind. And I remember one day, I told my friend, we were walking down the street, I want to be popular, I want to be a musician. Well known guy. And then I went to their first concert And I started doing music. In my mind, I wanted to be really popular. Music, something like that. So when we started playing music, my mind was such that we could come up with something really different than people do. In my mind, I don’t wanna, I don’t like to do, something that other people do, something very different. Something that doesn’t have competition. I do my own, simple, nothing complicated, and nice. Not coming to the TV show, when we first started playing music, people really liked it. So we did songs with, I don’t know, Peter who was that guitar player? Rosemary Gurg ?

Peter: Yeah Rosemary Gurg?, we went on tour with Rosemary Gurg? for a week. And we had a lot of little shows here and there. National TV, radio station. Many, many times here.

Jess: Yeah. And then one day we met our producer at a gas station. And we spoke to him that we were looking for someone to produce our album. And it went from there.

John: And was that the first person that you had talked to about producing your album, or other people passed on it?

Jess: No no, the first guy, we went to two, three guys before him.

Peter: I think we went to four of them. I remember four.

Jess: Yeah okay, four. The first one said no, not interested because not what I want to do. Go to see that person. And that’s not going to work. We kept searching until we got to our producer. He asked us at the gas station, he’s the one that came to us.

John: Wow and you said at a gas station? Were y’all playing at the gas station?

Jess: No no, we were filling up the tank for our car, and he came to us.

John: So he recognized you from your shows.

Jess: Yeah yeah from TV.

John: So these first three producers, they were too scared to take the project because there was no proof they were gonna make their money back, because there’s no frame of reference. It was too different.

Jess: Yeah.

Peter: Not necessarily, maybe, but it wasn’t showed this way. The first one I remember was Badmos, he was a good producer, he did produce well known musicians Ernesto Djejde and Bi Spin Too? things like that. We went to him and he said ok let me think about it. And he didn’t really show interest, probably because that wasn’t his style of music, it was too different from what he used to produce. So of course he might think we might not make enough money. The second one was a businessman, Woodle Woo? he used to have somebody work for him as producer. This man was a statesman in the Ivory Coast, so he could not show himself, so he had somebody to work for him. So when we approached him through other people they directed us to the guy who work for him. Do you remember this guy that we met in the plateau? In one of the highest buildings in the plateau?

Jess:  I don’t remember.

Peter: You don’t remember okay. So this guy he was not interested because he was running a lot of business at the same time. After him, we approached, yeah we approached one of the famous TV host Georges Benson, because he’s the one who produced Alpha Blondy. He produced the first album of Alpha Blondy which had a huge success, it had a huge success not only because Alpha Blondy is very good but mostly because he was one of the bosses at national TV. So promoting that music, his production, was easier. You understand? Through national TV he did a huge promotion for Alpha Blondy. So when we approached him at that time, I think he was having some disagreements with Alpha Blondy. So he was trying to produce another who used to play the same music, almost the same music, what we were doing. So we went to him and he refused, he’s not interested. Then later on, that week, he told us that we cut him because he was working on this kind of music, he wanted to be the first one to produce this kind of music, but he had his own band, he wasn’t counting on us, he was counting on these people. One of the musicians in that group later became Monique Séka, a great singer too, a girl. So this guy refused because he had a plan. The next one was Anet Roger. Anet Roger was a businessman. And he was interested. But he ended up producing somebody else on recommendation from his wife and the people around him. He didn’t tell us no i don’t want it, he kept on postponing and postponing until we realized he was working on someone else. And that project he was working on was cut short, it didn’t make it. He didn’t have enough money anymore, and he couldn’t tell us no I can’t do it. He never told us I can’t do it. But we were waiting on him, when we went to that gas station somewhere to buy gas and met Tao? he’s the one who approached us, he recognized us, and said what are your projects. And we said we are looking for someone to produce our album. He did ask us did you talk to anybody else before? And we said yeah we met a couple a people, and the last one we’re still waiting on is Anet Roger. And he said oh I know Anet Roger, he was my classmate but I don’t think he can do anything for you because I think he’s having a lot of trouble right now. But if you’re interested, I am interested in producing your album. That’s where we started. Am I right?

Jess: Yes.

John: And then the rest, as they say, is history. That ended up producing a wildly popular album, influential album. Tell us what it was like after that album came out, how it was received after the album was produced.

Jess: We did not expect to get the big up come like we got. I think it’s because the music itself was really well done and because it was kind of different. At that time we had dancing music, all dancing music. The music comes from clubs in Europe, all that genres of music we never heard before. I think it was the first style of music that was in West Africa. Using the guitar, harmony of guitars, it was the first time. And this style was very different. Very unique. It was the first time hearing that kind of music in the whole section, in the whole region. It was the first time. It made a different touch on people’s heart.

John: And to hear those harmonies and that style of music, but also to hear it in French and to hear it in Mande… is that the other language you guys sing in?

Jess: We sing in Gouro, our tribe language, and also in French, in English.

John: And what was the idea, or who’s idea was it to give it an English name on the album?

Jess: Oh the title for Flowers is one of the titles from the song, “Our Garden Needs Flowers,” that is the title of the compilation. And to make looks, to make them think it’s international, we had to use an English something to make it legit.

John: (laughing) Oh I see, I see. That might’ve helped also. That’s a good move. And after that I’m assuming your stages started to get a lot bigger from that point?

Jess: Yeah, and from there we start playing stadiums.

John:  Wow. And all over…

Jess: We started in our country playing stadiums and then we went to other cities, other regions other countries like Burkina Faso and Togo, we were playing the stadiums.

John: Wow, so definitely the message got out far and wide. And what were the messages with the album, what were them — as far as the lyrics go and what you wanted to communicate with the album — what was the messages behind it?

Jess: I mean, different songs had different messages. One song was kind of a little political, called “Apartheid.” It engaged a little bit, about the situation which was at that time in South Africa. So, we stood for this or that cause. And that makes us enemies. Like, the president  of our region — Peter do you want to talk about this too?

Peter: Yeah, yeah I think the main, overall message of this album is justice, equality, and peace. That’s the overall message. All of the songs are around this topic. We want equality among people, justice among people, and also peace. That’s the main message.

John: That’s great messages, for all of us, so it’s a very good thing that so many people around the world have heard this music, because we need this message. Obviously, there was a big influence from American Folk, American country music–  were there traditional elements, what were some elements that you brought in from your own background?

Peter: I guess the will singing, the will singing. The style of singing. Other than that the instrumentation is all modern. It’s all modern.

Jess: Yeah, modern, yes. I think what makes the difference is our singing, it’s very different. And our melodies were very different. It’s very traditional. The music is a modern music library. And everybody asks if its from modern country music, there’s no big difference. But it’s the way we sing. That makes a difference.

John: The singing styles came from the traditional songs of your village.

Jess: Yes yes. It doesn’t come from there, but it influenced our way of singing.

John: Very interesting. And obviously it’s still a fantastic work. So many people want to hear this album. When it was originally recorded, was it on vinyl, on tape? Did it make its way onto CDs?

Jess: It was on vinyl.

John: It was on vinyl only when it was first released?

Jess: Yes, and tape. And vinyl. Vinyl?

Peter: No.

Jess: Yes.

Peter: When it was first released, there were no tapes at that time. 1985, we had didn’t have no tape cassettes. Yeah, the cassettes came in the early 90s.

Jess: So it was only on vinyl then.

Peter: It was only vinyl

John: I see, and then now, as of last year, you had a reissue version, how did that come about?

Jess: That came from Brian. He’s the one who orchestrated  all of this. He got this tape from somebody in Oakland, her name was Jessica. She mastered all of this, she did the mastering. She’s from Oakland.

John: What is it like for you two to hear this reissue, what does this reissue mean for you?

Jess: Oh this sounds so much better, it sounds really good. It sounds really nice. It sounds very, very different from what we did. I don’t know how she did that. Cause she came out with some different sounds, she really really… The tone was so beautiful.

Peter: I will say, to hear that again, this album put back on the market with some better sounds 33 years later after it was released, and maybe buried somewhere on the Ivory Coast. To hear that again sounds like a revival, it sounds like a revival. Yeah.

John: That’s great, I bet it’s bringing back the creative juices.

Peter: Exactly.

John: And I’m hoping we’ll hear a follow-up, is there plans for– have you each been making music independently, have you been making music together– what have you been doing with music in these recent years?

Jess: Me, I’ve got an acoustic album coming out August 7th. Yeah, because we live separately. We live in separate states. There’s a festival, some concerts here in California in different places. So I issue my album, it’s gonna be out on August 7th.

John: Oh great. What is the title of the new album?

Jess: Never Give Up. It’s different, it’s different from what we used to do. I did something very, very different. It’s acoustic, I used traditional sounds. It’s very, very different. Not a lot of instruments.

John: What about you, Peter? What have you been doing with music recently?

Peter: I’ve been trying to release something– when we were forced to go our own way after we left the Ivory Coast– I started building a home studio here, recording demos for my own and demos for other people. I released an album in 2009 in Washington, DC and I was working on other songs here when Brian come along. So I started touring around the United States here. And as we were touring, new ideas come. I’m working on an album here with musicians from Nashville. This album we’re working on will come out soon. We haven’t put all the songs together yet, but it’s coming.

Jess: Yeah. I think our next album together will be very very very interesting. Because, being in this business, we learn from our time in the industry. Because the music of our lives has a variety, there are many different colors. We are gonna bring something very interesting for the ear. I’m using some instruments that they use, like drums of steel, all this kind of stuff.  The mandolin. But bring sounds, sounds which are different. I think this next album will be very good for the market.

John: Well, we know you don’t like to copy people. We know that you both have the talent to make something great, so. Very interested to hear what the next one is.

Jess: Yes, it will something be very interesting. The more we travel, the more we see people, the more we hear people, we have something really different. We can’t copy or sacrifice that progress. We have to bring something that people will say “ oh that’s different, or that’s good.” That’s what we are trying to do. For our next album, we are going to make something really curvy, very sultry, something very deep. It will have a very deep, a very good sound of music.

John: Well, when that comes out, hopefully we’ll hear from y’all again on the World Music Foundation Podcast. We’ll talk when that comes out again.

Jess: Yes sir.

John: Great, well, I’m gonna wrap up kind of with some, we have like three more questions. Easy questions. It’ll be like a lighting round. Just short answers. Don’t want to take up too much of your time. So,we’ll just give short, first thought answers. Both of you can answer this one: what is your favorite food?

Jess: African food.

Peter: Rice. Rice and plantains.

John: Oh, I’m getting hungry.  Rice and plantains. And for both of you: what do you like to do outside of music?

Peter: My hobby is music.

John: Your hobby is music!

Peter: My hobby is music. And besides music, I spend very very little time reading. Reading magazines, reading everything that comes to me. I like to read, I like to learn. I spend a lot of time, when I’m not working on my job, I spend a lot of time at my house working or playing with musicians.

John: And what about you, what are your hobbies?

Peter: I’m a cartoonist, I do cartoons. I draw.

John: Oh that’s right, Jess. Weren’t you doing political cartoons even back in–

Jess: Yeah, even in San Francisco, in some newspapers here. Some cartoons. I also do some clay animation. It’s become a job now.

John: Well, you get to be creative other than music. Okay and then the last question: in general, what’s been on your mind lately?

Jess: On my mind, I became a citizen, I want to go home. Yeah, I want to go home. I’ve been here for too long.

John: Well, there it is. Great. Real good. Well, it’s been great speaking with you. I appreciate you taking the time. You guys take care and I’ll speak with you soon.

Peter: Thank you, John.

For The Extra Curious

ABOUT OUR GUESTS

In contrast with the heaving funk, disco and reggae sounds of the day, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers was a lush fusion of traditional Ivorian village songs and American and English country and folk-rock music. Jess and Peter sang in French and English, delivering beautifully harmonized meditations on social injustice and inequality, calls for unity across the African continent, an end to apartheid in South Africa and the odd song for the ladies, all set against lush guitar riffs, rustic harmonica and rollicking feel-good rhythms.

Order the album here.

Strunz & Farah 1979

Musical Mentions

7:01 Simon & Garfunkel
7:08 Cat Stevens
8:19 Jimi Hendrix
8:29 The Beatles (Hey Jude, Let It Be)
9:49 Paul Simon
11:29 James Bond Theme
14:53: Amédée Pierre
15:00 Bob Marley (No Woman No Cry)
18:19 Don Williams
20:51 Don Williams
20:42 Alpha Blondy
25:14 Premiere Chance
30:47 Rosemary Gurg ??
33:11 Badmos
33:19 Ernesto Djedje
31:51 Georges Tai Benson
36:27 Monique Séka
36:39 Anet Roger
40:08 Gouro
40:27 Our Garden Needs Its Flowers (album)
41:03 Burkina Faso
41:04 Togo
48:50 Brian Shimkovitz