Democracy Is In The Beats

Meet the greatest Togolese Afrofunk bandleader in Minnesota

The Blue Nile Restaurant in Minneapolis is a sort of inverted version of Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca, a place where African immigrants can gather to enjoy the sounds of home. But it's difficult to decide whether the singer onstage is Rick or Sam, or Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance hero.

Like Sam in the movie, Yawo Armstrong Attivor doles out equal parts nostalgia and American modernity to his African listeners. (His father named him for Satchmo.) The ambitiously eclectic Afrofunk/reggae/jazz band, les Fils Attivon, which he leads from the bottom by playing bass, draws a crowd that is as cosmopolitan as our city's Little Mogadishu gets. In an atmosphere that's part old Cairo, part Chi-Chi's, Liberian men in tan suits mingle with Argentine women showing off their midriffs, while a flower child dances in her seat, eyes closed.

The singer with the George Foreman dome has Toots Hibbert's everyman soul, but without the Jamaican great's unearthly technique: Yawo is all everyman. (He is billed under his first name.) Yet the guy arrests your attention without presuming to command it. Maybe it's his voice, which is as spongy as the injera on the menu. You can easily believe he once helped lead a student strike for freedom of speech in Togo, a West Virginia-size West African nation that is still scrambling out from under decades of military rule.

In March 1991, Yawo was a 22-year-old student of French literature who climbed onto a table in a sunny campus courtyard one morning and began delivering a speech on democracy to a crowd of fellow students. He remembers the first stone that sailed out from the throng, and he believes it was lobbed by an undercover policeman.

"There was some people who had taken classes with us beating us," he says of the incident, which made headlines worldwide after he and his comrades were chased into the campus library. "The guy who dragged me out of the library said, 'We are here to protect you.' But that was a lie. He started asking me where the weapons were hidden."

Yawo had no weapons to hide. But he was beaten anyway, and imprisoned, before he escaped to America, where he still presses the cause against president for life Gnassingbe Eyadema. (Yawo's brother runs a website out of New York dedicated to the Togolese diaspora: www.batirletogo.org.) Like Bogart's Rick, the bandleader doesn't dwell on the past. He has a ready laugh, and he'll talk about anything--whether in English, French, Spanish, or his native tongue of Ewe (pronounced ay-VAY).

His band, les Fils Attivon, is similarly multilingual. An October show found guitarist Bill Bergmann chasing Matt Hupton's West African fingerpicking with soukous flourishes. On the djembe, Senegal native Ghana Mbaye plays his mbalax rhythms against Brazilian Eliezer Freitas Santos's Afro-Cuban bongo shower. The band also has a punchy horn section and a revolving cast of drummers. But the percussionists are the heart of the matter, giving the dips into Sting jazz some sting that even the late Joe Strummer would dig.

At one point during the set, Yawo waves this din to a stop and calls for a minute of silence in memory of Paul Wellstone, "a very passionate figure in the political landscape here, who died yesterday."

A "yes" comes from the crowd, and Yawo launches into Youssou N'Dour's "The Truth."

When I ask the woman who said "yes" if she's a fan of this music, she mishears "fan" as "dance," and soon I'm accompanying her onto the floor.

 

Youssou N'Dour changed Yawo's life in an unexpected way here in the States. After relocating to Des Moines in 1992 (he was granted political asylum in 1994), Yawo was attending the Iowa State Fair when strains of the N'Dour song "Set" began wafting through the grounds.

"I heard some African music coming out of the theater and said, 'Who is playing African music in Iowa?'" he remembers, relaxing with other band members in their Bryn-Mawr studio-cum-practice space. "It was Up with People. So I went backstage."

Until it folded in 2000, Up with People was a kind of international choir that promoted peace and tolerance with a cast of hundreds. Yawo toured the U.S. and Europe with the group, but it wasn't quite what he'd hoped for. "Back home we had a group called International Movement for Innovative Music, where we tried to do fusion-type stuff," he says. "And I thought that's what Up with People was. But then I got there and everything was already written."

He had already been singing in bands with his siblings all his life, even appearing on Togo's national TV once. He had also studied classical flute and guitar before picking up electric bass. ("With the flute I didn't get any girls," he explains.) But Up with People was his introduction to a wider world (he now has places to stay across the country). And the message suited a guy who can somehow salvage the phrase "it takes a whole village to raise a child" from Clintonian cliché. Yawo eventually covered Up with People's steel-drum funk song "It's Alright" on last year's les Fils Attivon debut, Celebrate! (Caveman Records).

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