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"I studied the American language program at Columbia University and was planning on becoming an English teacher," says Alpha Blondy, who was born in Timbokro, on the African Ivory Coast. Blondy never accomplished this goal; instead, he became one of the world's most successful reggae stars. But he still uses the skills he picked up at Columbia, performing his songs in English as well as in French, Spanish, Hebrew and his native tongue, Dioula. Just as important, many of his songs are quite educational--and they're a lot more conducive to dancing than the average textbook.
Before aspiring to academia, Blondy was something of a teacher's nightmare; he and the members of his band, Atomic Vibrations, were all expelled from high school at one point. They were musical rebels as well, preferring rock and soul acts such as Pink Floyd, Otis Redding and Earth, Wind and Fire over traditional African sounds. "We were just a rock-and-roll band trying to be more American than Americans," Blondy recalls with a laugh. "We wanted to come to America because all the youths of my generation dream of coming to America. When you read magazines about Woodstock and Creedence Clearwater Revival and you see the pictures and think about the stories you've been told, it makes you fantasize." Later on, Blondy discovered that much of what he'd envisioned had indeed been sheer myth. "When we first heard Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, we thought it was all American music," he admits sheepishly. "It wasn't until I came to America that I realized Jimmy Cliff was Jamaican."
Another strong influence on Blondy was the politically charged atmosphere of Africa during the Seventies and Eighties. "It was a time of independence, and we were very much into the festivities, receiving politicians who would come to the village," he says. "I was not at all inclined to become a musician. It was a question of destiny."
To that end, Blondy returned to high school and completed his degree prior to enrolling at Columbia. Before long, however, he suffered a nervous breakdown that brought his academic pursuits to an end. "It happened because I didn't have a scholarship and had to work as a messenger, and I had to work part-time in the African embassy," Blondy says. "And all those things were just too much for me."
During previous interviews, Blondy has provided other explanations for his health problems during this period; for instance, he once claimed that drinking a beer that a fellow Ivory Coaster had laced with angel dust prompted his sudden mental decline. But his tales of the treatment he was given upon his return to Africa have been consistent: He says that his family placed him in a psychiatric hospital in order to "cure" him of his interest in music. "That was the beginning of war [with my parents]," Blondy notes. "Being a musician in the Ivory Coast was considered a disgrace, like being a failure. My stepfather didn't like it at all; he acted in a very wicked way." The two years that followed were difficult yet formative. Despite being force-fed tranquilizers, Blondy wrote a great many songs--and even though rumors about mental instability still haunt him, he remains a prolific composer.
Upon his release from the hospital, Blondy began playing in and near his hometown. His timing was good: Interest in Bob Marley and other reggae artists was exploding in Africa at the time. (Zimbabwean prime minister Robert Mugabe has been quoted as saying that his troops listened to Marley's music during the Rhodesian civil war.) Blondy capitalized on this popularity by adding a twist to his work--one that was suggested by an acquaintance from Jamaica. "My friend told me, 'Alpha, it would be better for you if you wrote more of your songs in Dioula,' because that did not exist on the reggae scene. It was something new," he says. "He told me to give an identity to my music--and that identity was singing in a language I would use to reach the African continent."
Thanks to a onetime schoolmate who worked for Ivory Coast television, Blondy subsequently appeared on a talent-contest show called Premiere Chance. A producer who was impressed by his performance then took him into the studio to cut 1983's Jah Glory, a recording that sold more than a million copies in Africa alone. Ten albums later, Alpha Blondy continues to issue music and acerbic social criticism that's as well-regarded as ever; Lucky Dube is the only African reggae artist who can match Blondy's prominence on the international scene.
The recent bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania indicate that Africa seems to be going through another unstable phase. Events like these ensure that Blondy won't run out of material. "We are surrounded by political things all over--you just put the TV on," he says. "In Africa, especially, every day there is a new political misadventure happening. It is very rare to hear positive things on the political side of Africa. When you pick up a paper, the first thing you see is civil war, or famine due to civil war, or refugee camps due to civil war. Such an environment influences my lyrics. I relate to the misfortunes that we live through."