Key Tracks: Magic System’s “1er Gaou”

Jessica Kariisa traces the history of the Afropop classic – from the streets of Abidjan to the world

Magic System performing in New York City Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Magic System’s “1er Gaou” has likely been played during peak hours at every African event in the past 20 years. Parties, weddings, baby showers, club nights – it doesn’t matter. As long as there is a critical mass of Africans, there is an incredibly high chance that the song will be played. When the syncopated drum phrase that introduces the track drops, everyone assumes their positions: Ivorians clutch their chest with nostalgia, Francophones sing the lyrics word for word and Anglophones stumble along in made-up French, never missing the classic “nangalin nangalin wah” refrain.

In 1999, the zouglou quartet recorded the song in Abidjan not knowing that it would become one of the biggest pop hits to ever come out of the continent. Following in the lineage of the immortal sounds of “Umqombothi,” “Vulindlela,” “Zangalewa” and “Coupe Bibamba,” “1er Gaou” catapulted Côte d’Ivoire to levels of musical fame it had never reached before. The song’s impact in the diaspora greased the wheels for the explosive success of the hybrid genres being championed by European artists of African descent today – from French Afrotrap to British Afrowave and Afroswing, not to mention the undeniable influence of African music on North American megastars like Beyoncé and Drake.

Magic System - 1er Gaou

Like any rags-to-riches story, the tale of “1er Gaou” and Magic System’s rise does not want for heartwarming details. The four young men from Anoumabo – a poor, working class neighborhood in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city – first bonded over their love of football and music. They were most inspired by Alpha Blondy, the Ivorian reggae superstar, who achieved international acclaim with his 1984 album Cocody Rock!!!. “He was the first artist from here who traveled internationally, he became an icon,” Asalfo, the lead singer of the group, told me in June 2019. “On our notebooks at school we had photos of Alpha Blondy.”

Despite a penchant for reggae music, the young musicians found themselves wrapped up in the budding zouglou movement. The political dance music, created by university students in the early 1990s, had inspired many aspiring musicians to form groups and make the rounds in local showcases hoping for a shot at fame. Before officially becoming a zouglou group, many young musicians started out performing woyo, a local street sound that consists of call-and-response songs about everyday life, supported with little more than simple percussion.

Before Magic System became the tight quartet they are today, they were a collective of roughly 30 or so people who would perform woyo at sports tournaments around their neighborhood. They eventually focused their efforts on breaking into zouglou and trimmed the group down to eight. From there, they split off further into two groups, with Asalfo, Manadja, Goude and Tino grouping together to form Magic System.

We started with a base at a zouk pace, so we slowed the track down. It was important for it to sound different than what had already been done.

David Tayorault, producer of “1er Gaou”

Finding a name wasn’t a priority until they found themselves at a showcase hoping to show off their new repertoire. The organizers wouldn’t let them perform without a group name, so they came up with something on the fly. They were all wearing branded Maggi t-shirts but knew they couldn’t name themselves after the popular seasoning, so they adapted it to “Magic” and added “System” to signify a grouping. One year after they officially banded together, in 1997, they released Papitou, their first zouglou album, but it was a commercial flop. The group returned to the live performance circuit, trying their best to network and make ends meet.

In 1999, they found themselves at yet another talent show in Anoumabo. In a chance encounter, they ran into a famous local producer named David Tayorault, who had made a name for himself in the ’80s as a member of the pop group Woya. Not wanting to miss out on a potential opportunity, they convinced the producer to give them an appointment at his studio in the ritzy neighborhood of Cocody.

Asalfo had a good feeling about a tune that had been running through his head. Tayorault agreed, but there was a slight problem. The only available recording session was that same day, and the young quartet was so broke they couldn’t afford taxi fare to get to the studio. Luckily, according to Guillaume Vergès’ 2019 book on the group, some generous women in their neighborhood felt for the musicians and lent them money to get to the session.

They likely had to practice the tune on the ride over, as Asalfo never wrote down the music or lyrics. The words were easy enough to remember, though, as they were based on a true story. The song details a finicky lover who only finds time for Asalfo when he’s financially stable. Asalfo, realizing this, decides to troll her, inviting her over to dinner and making ridiculous propositions such as having grilled alligator and elephant stew, since regular chicken won’t be enough to fill her up. The tune is punctuated by the regular refrain, “nangalin nangalin wah,” a common response in woyo songs which means “you’re crazy,” while the chorus translates an age-old adage into Ivorian slang: “On dit premier gaou n’est pas gaou oh, c’est deuxième gaou qui est niata oh ah” – essentially, ”Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”

It’s unclear whether what followed was a case of miscommunication or punctuality, but by the time the four arrived to the studio to record the song, Tayorault had already left. The generosity of the women had only been enough to fund a single ride, so they found themselves stuck in Cocody with no recording session and no way to go home. It was dark, so rather than risking their safety, they decided to sleep outside the studio and walk home in the morning. But in a fortunate twist of fate, Tayorault reappeared at the studio two hours later. He had forgotten something and came back to retrieve it, finding the hungry artists asleep outside his door. Moved by their determination, he opened the studio, and in the wee hours of the morning, they recorded “1er Gaou.”

“1er Gaou” opened the door for African pop music that could be a favorite of not just immigrant parents yearning for the homeland, but also for identity-seeking diasporan children.

Tayorault decided to keep it simple, playing a simple rhythmic guitar to accompany the percussion and melody. Moving away from traditional zouglou, he decided to try a different tempo. “We started with a base at a zouk pace, so we slowed the track down. It was important for it to sound different than what had already been done. [Beyond the] bass, drums, guitar and the small synth melodies there’s nothing else in this song… I didn’t want to complicate things, I kept it really simple and I was right, ” Tayorault explained over the phone in June 2019.

The group waited for daybreak to walk home with their new cassette in their hands. “The first time we listened to the song after recording it in the studio, there were children sitting outside my door listening to it without me knowing. I went out and asked them what they were doing and they said they’d heard music they liked. I realized that children’s appreciation is sincere and if they like it, that means it’s probably good, and it all went up from there,” Asalfo remembers.

It truly did go up from there as the song started to gain traction in the city. As the group continued to perform at live shows, they started getting more requests for the song. “When we got somewhere and we didn’t sing it people would ask for it. So we understood it was something people liked,” Asalfo recalls. The group soon scrounged up enough money to record a music video, which allowed the song to get placed on nationally broadcast music shows. The low-budget video features Asalfo acting out the storyline interspersed with scenes of the group dancing throughout the city. Once the video hit the streets, the song’s popularity skyrocketed. “It was filmed for 450 euros, I always say that. We borrowed the car from someone’s brother. We used our clothes. We were lucky the clip was about struggling, so we didn’t have to buy anything,” Asalfo says. “We borrowed the house and the costume you see at the end. We did it with what we had. With 300,000 francs we had a clip in the can and voila. That clip went around the world.”

Magic System - 1er Gaou (Original Video)

On Christmas Eve in 1999, an army commander named Robert Guéï staged a coup, the country’s first, and deposed then President Henri Konan Bedie. After a brief smattering of violence, things began to calm down, but the coup served as a precursor for the political instability that would follow in the coming decade. In a bittersweet manner, it also had a profound impact on Magic System’s budding success. “The coup of 1999 made the whole world look at Cote d’Ivoire and at that time the one positive thing happening here was ‘1er Gaou.’ It was nice to have some humor and joy during the difficult times the country was facing,” Asalfo notes. Unwittingly, they planned their first international trip to promote the song during the coup. It was to Burkina Faso, and it would have been their first time on an airplane.“We couldn’t fly for our first time, so we went by car because you could still get to Burkina via land crossings. But we came back by plane, so that was the first time we flew, ” Asalfo recounts.

After Burkina Faso, the success of the song throughout the region took them to Niger, Gabon, Benin and Togo. While they were making the rounds throughout West Africa, Claudy Siar, a French radio DJ and host of the show Couleurs tropicales, heard the song on one of his frequent trips to Abidjan. He put it in his rotation and it soon ended up on a number of compilation albums circulating throughout Paris’s black neighborhoods. Through the advocacy of an Ivorian A&R, the French label Sonodisc ended up licensing the track, and enlisted producer Bob Sinclar to do a remix in the hopes of breaking it into the Parisian club circuit. The club remix got a bit of traction in France but, more importantly, it stirred up interest in the original song, which found itself again on French radio – only this time on nearly all the stations.

Magic System - 1er Gaou (Bob Sinclar Full Vocal - Le Bisou Mix)

By the summer of 2002, three years after “1er Gaou”’s initial release, the song had reached #4 on the French charts and everyone wanted to know who Magic System was. The group signed with the French label JPS and filmed a new video for the song, filled with commercial gloss, glam and matching shiny red shirts. It doesn’t quite capture the essence of the tune the same way that the initial video did – even Asalfo agrees – but it did help propel the group into the international spotlight. They followed up the success of “1er Gaou” with several other hits, including the 2003 Raï’n’B collaboration “Un Gaou A Oran,” and 2004’s hip-hop-inflected “Bouger Bouger.” Within a few years they played some of France’s biggest venues, including the Zenith, the Olympia and the national stadium, and even performed for then president Jacques Chirac. “The Zenith was for Alpha Blondy, Youssou N’Dour, all those artists. It wasn’t us. Then we did the Zenith two, three times. We played at the Olympia, the great stadiums, big cities. Each time we thought we had reached the peak of our dreams there was a new dream that would present itself,” Asalfo says.

In a two story, air-conditioned office in Abidjan, I met with Asalfo to discuss the 20-year legacy of the song. The building belongs to Gaou Productions and has a security check-in, reception and waiting area on the first floor, and several closed rooms on the second level where members of Magic System’s team work every day to keep the unstoppable machine that has grown around the quartet alive. The building alone seems like enough of a legacy. But on top of this, the group has created a festival in their home neighborhood of Anoumabo, and opened a number of healthcare centers and schools through their foundation. To Asalfo, however, the true impact of “1er Gaou” is something less tangible: “We’re proud to have had this success at a time when African music in Europe was a bit behind, and didn’t have access to the larger media. We gave a certain desire to the African diaspora who was only interested in the urban music of the other side; we made them believe in Africa and it created new talents after that. You start to see all these new talents flourish in Europe who sing with African words, who put African rhythm in their music – even when it’s rap they use African guitars or something. For us we’re more than proud because ‘1er Gaou’ has a lot to do with that.”

“1er Gaou” opened the door for African pop music that could be a favorite of not just immigrant parents yearning for the homeland, but for identity-seeking diasporan children who are often caught in a precarious and anxiety-ridden middle ground between their ethnicities and their Western homes. Artists like Bisso na Bisso, MHD and recent upstart Afro B would not be where they are without the massive crossover success of “1er Gaou.” It spawned a number of remixes following Bob Sinclar’s club mix, and according to Guillaume Verges’ book, there exist several versions of the song across styles like kompa, salsa, mandarin, techno and ndombolo. In 2019, Nigerian Afropop sensation Burna Boy interpolated “1er Gaou” in the chorus of his megahit “On The Low,” switching out the zouglou specific “nangalin nangalin wah” for “Angeli-Angelina,” a subtle nod to the pop classic, keeping it alive and well as modern Afropop flourishes around the world.

The seemingly pure rise of “1er Gaou” has not been without controversy. In a 2018 Interview with Vibe Radio, French-Ivorian rapper Fababy asserted that Magic System stole “1er Gaou” from another zouglou artist named Fitini. The accusations weren’t particularly new and Fitini himself has vaguely alluded to potential plagiarism over the years. Asalfo insists that the claims are unfounded: “We’ve always had to confront it. We’ve been here for 22 years. All claims have been made and the real claim to the song is ours, there’s no doubt, we’re not gonna argue about it. All the tests were done. If today I still have 100% of the rights to the song it’s because there’s no other ‘father’ than Magic System.”

With all their side projects, these days it seems like the group, and Asalfo in particular, are more interested in social impact projects than making music. Despite this, they still manage to score hits. Their 2014 pop anthem “Magic In the Air” was the official song for the French national soccer team at the 2018 World Cup – a fitting choice for a roster that was notably filled with players of African descent. And most recently, the group joined forces with the European Union to launch the “EU Magic Tour,” a concert series around Africa with Magic System as headliners.

Wherever they find themselves, though, the magic of “1er Gaou” continues to bewitch fans left and right as a point of nostalgia, a moment to dance and/or a humorous break. It will continue to live on in the pantheon of great Pan-African musical hits, a deserving achievement that still rings true 20 years down the line.

By Jessica Kariisa on October 3, 2019

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