A 1985 album from two Ivory Coast musicians explores the sounds of 1970s country and folk; it amounts to a joyful vision of a world without borders.
In 1985, Jess Sah Bi and Peter One’s debut album, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, launched the two Ivory Coast musicians into regional stardom across greater West Africa. Like many recordings of its era and location, Our Garden eventually went out of print, available only to determined collectors and scavengers. Finally, reissue label Awesome Tapes From Africa has given Sah Bi and One’s folk masterpiece its first official re-release. Thirty-three years later, this unusual recording of Côte d’Ivoire country ballads still sounds like a work of pure joy.
There is an innate sense of travel in Our Garden; it is an album of journey music that gallops all the way from the Ivory Coast to the vast expanses of the American Southwest. In a way, Sah Bi and One’s bridging of musical genres and disparate continents foretold their own separate voyages to the United States: Today Peter works as a nurse in Nashville, while Jess teaches African music to children in San Francisco. Though Our Garden is heavily steeped in Americana, it retains sonic stamps of its original geography. Early song “Katin,” for instance, is more reminiscent of 1980s Afro-pop than it is 1970s country, and it is one of the record’s most buoyant offerings. Its muted scrapes of electric guitar and peppering of drum machine make for a cheerful rhythm that carries Sah Bi and One’s entwined vocals. Like most of the LP, “Katin” is sung in Gouro, a Mande language of the Ivory Coast; even without understanding that tongue, listeners will pick up on the music’s abundant bliss.
If songs like “Katin” and “Kango” successfully transmit a sense of celebration across language barriers, lullabies such as “Clipo Clipo” and the title track paint the album with rich scenery. The former glides to the pace of a slow-rolling car on a leisure cruise. Papery taps on tightly drawn drum skins hover overhead while Sah Bi and One’s harmonies sound like well-tuned, exquisite instruments of their own making. “Our Garden Needs Its Flowers,” meanwhile, is a steady amble through desert plains. Its rattling percussion sounds like spurs clicking across a dry stretch of earth, and a howling harmonica calls to mind Townes Van Zandt’s “Like a Summer Thursday.” Sung entirely in English, “Our Garden” is an entreaty for “peace on Earth,” using flowers as the metaphorical core of the song. It is a masterful rendition of languid country and western, brightened by Sah Bi and One’s synchronized, Simon & Garfunkel-like harmonies.
“Our Garden” isn’t the only song on the album that wraps political idealism in the silken fabric of Sah Bi and One’s vocals. The upbeat “Apartheid” calls for an end to the horrific racial segregation laws in South Africa, nine years before they were eventually abolished, while “African Chant,” and “Solution” (the latter sung in French) ponder notions of freedom and unity. Perhaps what’s most astonishing about Our Garden Needs Its Flowers is how well its songs have endured. The album has traveled a long way in the past three decades, and it arrives now like a delightful gift.
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