International Hits

International Hit Parade: France Is Sweet On Magic System's 'Cherie Coco'

Like some dark twisted fantasy, an umbilical link always connects ex-colonizers with lands they once ruled. The influence is two-way; the colonizers are invariably altered by those they think they control. "Exotic" cuisines conquer: Britain's favorite dish is the specially created curry, chicken tikka masala, unknown in India. Slang slings the verbal dexterity of the once-downtrodden like a silk scarf round its former captors' language. The ubiquitous exclamation "Wicked!" represents Jamaica conquering first Britspeak, then hip-hop parlance. Just so, a band from a former French colony, Cote d'Ivoire's Magic System, has two tracks in the French charts at once, "Ambiance Africaine" at 14 and "Chérie Coco" at number 4.

Paris was and remains the international cultural capital of its Afro-Caribbean ex-colonies, the central melting-pot where local musics meld and modernize. The 1980s saw an explosive development of the sounds such as soukous and zouk that Magic System update as their own Ivorian style, Zouglou. But the mainstream media establishment ignored them then, even while immigrants and scenemakers would dance to them all night in African boîtes. I know because I lived in Paris and in 1984 co-hosted Chéries Noirs, France's first African music radio show — other than those on African underground pirate radio stations! With my Guinean friend Mouna, I spun heady precursors to "Chérie Coco" by artists like Kassav and Papa Wemba. But our show was on Radio Nova, a trend-setting pirate radio station started by the glossy news magazine I wrote for, Actuel, meaning that only hipsters heard us.

Media mutates. Actuel, which seemed as stable as the News of the World, is no more; Radio Nova is arguably France's most influential mainstream radio station and Magic System rule the French pop charts. The commercial acknowledgment of Afro-Paris pop that began building in the early '90s is a delicious development — one that has never yet tickled the American charts.

The dulcet endearment "Chérie Coco" suggests the tenderest smile. But Magic System's vibrant track switches the phrase's affection into action as a pulse-racing dance chant. My favorite moment is when the martial, tumbling drums drop out to reveal the old school shimmering Central African guitar sound: incisively picked arabesques of notes that build tension just as much as crashing chords.

Joined here by the rapper Soprano, the band members Salif "Asalfo" Traoré, Narcisse "Goude" Sadoua, Étienne "Tino" Boué Bi, and Adama "Manadja" Fanny have been friends since school days. They use modern auto-tune effects on their vocals — but their exuberant relish of well-loved old catch-phrases like "L'ambiance!" show their roots in classic Afro-Parisian pop. The cheery video's beauty contest for Miss Cherie Coco, in which the curvy African-looking girl beats out the skinny model types, captures the fun of a real bal dansant.

When Magic System started out in 1996, their music came out on cassette. They swept West Africa with "1ère Gwaou," the wry tale of a fool for love wising up; re-invented as a dance track in 2002, it made them the biggest African artists to hit France for twenty years. Their early songs confront weighty issues like abortion and paedophilia. Since then, Cote d'Ivoire has been ripped apart by war and now prizes every moment of stability it gets between crises. One Magic System video bears the legend: Cote d'Ivoire, Pays de Paix - Land of Peace. Certainly, the joyful ambiance of "Chérie Coco" brings cheer to many Cote d'Ivoiriens amid their struggles, while it also helps France dance. Swingez!

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