A benefit for Togo, headlined with transplanted local boy, Yawo Attivor, and the irrepressible, straight-from-Togo Jimi Hope drummed up thousands of sorely needed dollars for this West African country last Saturday evening, April 30th. The wait-time while sitting in comfortable seats at Buetow Auditorium at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota was a bit distracting, but quickly forgotten once the show opened 75 minutes past the posted start time of 7:30 p.m.
Kuevi Ekue, CEO of Motade, a humanitarian society bringing relief to the Togolese tells me that when many Togolese flee to the United States, they remain hidden. Their secrecy might be due to fear of further prosecution similar to what they endured back in Togo. Or they remain out of sight because of a mistrust of others, a mistrust scorched into their hearts through torture and repression experienced in their native Republique Togolaise. Or their failure to show up at any given event could be something as simple as a misunderstanding. For most Togolese, understanding English falls, at best, as a third language in their lives. A mix-up seems the most logical reason I, along with hundreds of others sit squirming in our seats as we wait for the concert to commence.
Ekue, president of Motade, an organization he created at the end of 2002, speaks earnestly about the unrest in the country he left over ten years ago and of his response to the needs of Togo’s immigrant people. The Togolese Movement for the Acceleration of Democracy, otherwise known as Motade, uses a two-pronged approach. On one hand, Motade brings assistance to newcomers to the USA. Motade seeks to unify the Togolese under one strong umbrella so that they can, in turn, help others financially who either seek asylum in the States or who wish to remain in Togo and yet need support to withstand the duress of the current political condition.
Many of the Togolese here in Minnesota come seeking friends and relatives who have immigrated before them; by word of mouth, they connect with Motade. Some are referred to Motade by the Center for Victims of Torture, located at 717 East River Road in Minneapolis. CVT, one of the first organizations of its kind in the United States dedicated to healing the wounds of government-sponsored torture appeals directly to the unfortunate needs of the Togolese.
Once the Togolese are in the arms of Motade, they develop the tools needed to function within their new country. And since Motade is self-funded, building up its members is essential so that the Togolese already here can support Togolese yet to come. While the needs of immigrants from Togo are serious, Togolese, like all people have a great sense of beauty and joy. The last Saturday of April proves to be completely infused with an enthusiastic spirit of hope as displayed by the musicians as well as a receptive audience.
Yawo Attivor climbs on stage smiling his infectious grin, clapping to a child-like song, inviting the audience to follow. Along with some members of his band, Les Fils Attivor, as well as a couple stand-ins, Yawo performs Village for us. His next ballad, It’s Alright, sung in Mina, the language of southern Togo, shows off Yawo’s acoustic skill. Now this twelve-year resident of the United States switches to a five-string electric bass guitar and starts rocking’. Clips for a music video, Ayelevi no ku, are being filmed and Yawo’s at his best. Part of his best includes a genuine affection for children. I’m guessing Yawo acquired that virtue culturally.
The audience includes many children, well over two dozen, under the age of ten years. Children are noisy; certainly the ones sitting next to me are vocal and rambunctious. But rather than shushing them and swatting diapered behinds, these tots are welcomed. Their energy is channeled from unfocused jabs to dancing in pairs. This different attitude causes me to reflect on my own experience as a mother when it was deemed inappropriate to bring my baby along to an “adult” activity. I find the inclusive atmosphere at this Togolese event to be refreshing and positive.
To understand Yawo, one would need to be fully versed in the history, particularly the political history, of Togo. Yawo is not a politician, yet his music transcends pure entertainment, to embrace a worldview, to deliver a political message. Yawo wrote Bikutsi, a song about democracy for everyone, which includes Peter Vircks’ saxophone painting the number in jazz hues.
Many of his original songs, rich in traditional African sound, are about peace and freedom, qualities that are in short supply in his native West African country of Togo. And yet, despite his peace-loving ways, and in light of the recent election which according to Yawo, fraudulently brought Faure Gnassingbe to power, Yawo maintains that “all means should be used to free the people of Togo, including military action.”
Yawo ends his 45-minute set; readying himself to repeat an experience he first had the pleasure of 15 years ago. Yawo accompanies Togo’s counterpart to the USA’s own Bruce Springsteen. In his first visit to the United States, Jimi Hope makes an unforgettable entrance, draping the Togolese flag over his head, dramatically unveiling himself on stage.
Straight away we are pulled from traditional world music to a twist on 70s and 80s classic rock. Hope jumps from I’m in Love to Born to Love without even catching his breath. And we don’t get a chance to catch ours, either. The first two numbers, in English, give way to a bit slower ballad, sung in Mina. From this, we fly straight into another rockin-da-house piece, which is remarkably loud.
I begin to act the mother hen and worry about all the tender ears being belted with Hope’s energizing and exuberant sound. The crowd finds Hope irresistible. Not even the ear splitting volume compels the adults to take their children to a safer distance. Every number has them on their feet, shouting out, dancing, waving their arms, pumping the air.
Clearly Kuevi’s objective to bring the Togolese together this night has been reached. The sheer power of Hope’s presence ignites the Togo people. When Hope lays down his shiny, blue, acoustic guitar, seizing the microphone, stand and all, he commands our attention and flames us into a mad frenzy. Hope is magnetic and his force electrifies us.
Joel Arpin, sitting in on drums first for Yawo, then for Hope, watches Hope’s every move. In fact, the entire band jumps when Hope so much as raises an eyebrow. The palpable energy connects the musicians like bumper cars connected to an electric ceiling. David Burk, freelancing bassist, visibly enjoys himself, allowing Hope to propel him to front and center for a particularly vigorous solo.
Two thirds of the way through Hope’s set, he performs a prophetic song, Edan Plékéke, telling the tale of a snake that wants to ride a bike. If the snake falls on the floor, that’s his own problem. Much of Hope’s music is like this. Hope uses story telling, humor, and exaggerated comedy to convey his message to his listeners. The audience eats it up, laughing and hooting, clapping in approval, of Hope’s intimations.
After the show, several people vie for Hope’s attention, wanting their picture taken with this Togolese legend. Yawo describes the experience as wonderful. “I get a strong feeling of going back home, back to where I come from. It gives me a lot of energy, rejuvenation.” If music were only enough to resolve the bitter, tortuous situation back in Togo