A’Salfo, the magician of the Ivorian music industry

In the galaxy of Ivorian artists, where careers pass like meteors, they are the best identified stellar objects

A’Salfo, the magician of the Ivorian music industry

In the galaxy of Ivorian artists, where careers pass like meteors, they are the best identified stellar objects. Since the unbeatable Premier Gaou, the friends of Magic System have had twenty-three years of success. A longevity that has allowed Salif Traoré, known as "A'Salfo", the leader of the group, to establish his status as the leading businessman in the music industry in Côte d'Ivoire. And at the Anoumabo Urban Music Festival (Femua), of which it was the fifteenth edition from April 25 to 30, to present a solid program this year with Booba as headliner.

In the offices of Gaou Productions, in Abidjan, where he receives at the foot of a wall lined with gold records, A'Salfo has dropped the T-shirt for the tie. With his childhood friends Goudé, Tino and Manadja, from the popular district of Anoumabo, he founded Magic System in 1996. The group's first album was a commercial failure, but the second, Premier Gaou, was a dazzling success in Côte d'Ivoire and in France thanks to the support of two cultural journalists, Ephrem Youkpo and Claudy Siar.

It is precisely his arrival in Paris that allows the quartet to professionalize. "A'Salfo immediately adopted a European production model," says anthropologist Léo Montaz, a specialist in the Ivorian music industry. He met Mafia K’1 Fry [a rap collective that 113 was part of], all the big producers, distributors, radio people… He talked to everyone and learned on the job. This is how he managed to take Magic System far beyond the zouglou groups of the time. »

"From zero to hero"

When asked about the recipe for his success, A'Salfo sums it up in four words: "Work, discipline, perseverance, vision." Saint Bouez, friend of the group and manager of zougloumen Fitini and Petit Denis, confirms: "When a group makes a hit, it can be due to luck and talent. But for a career like Magic System's, it takes more than that: it takes work. And they are all very hard workers. The slammer Kapegik, who just released a single called Comme A'Salfo, adds: "For me, A'Salfo is a role model for youth, a symbol of self-sacrifice and resilience. He's living proof that if you believe in your dreams, you can go from zero to hero. »

As for the "vision", A'Salfo, who is following a master's degree at HEC Paris, does not hide his pragmatism: "There was a strong West Indian community in France, so we went to see zouk with Guadeloupean singer Jocelyne Labylle; we collaborated with Leslie, who had just come out of [the telecrochet show] “Graine de star”, then with 113, who had just won the Victoires de la Musique. The result: Magic System topped the charts several times with Bouger Bouger (2005), Zouglou Dance (2007), Chérie Coco (2011) and Magic in the Air, which became the anthem of the French football team in the 2014 World Cup.

The group has chosen a dual marketing strategy, with different titles for each album and each song in France and Ivory Coast. “In Europe, we have an audience that dances and celebrates to our songs,” explains the singer. In West Africa, we have an audience that listens to our messages, understands what we say and lives what we sing. Magic System's coup de force was to satisfy its two audiences at the same time, to the point that nouchi pieces have become essential at French weddings and birthdays.

In 2008, A'Salfo decided to set up its own structure, Gaou Productions. In the end, the company only produced a few major artists, with the exception of the Zouglou Makers, and quickly faced competition from the arrival of the majors Sony and Universal in Côte d'Ivoire. But today it works as an events and communication group for big names in Ivorian music and, above all, organizes the Femua.

Because there it is, the enormous contribution of A'Salfo to the Ivorian music industry. A high standard festival, with a capacity of 100,000 people per day and an international program. "In terms of soft power, Femua has a big regional impact," says Léo Montaz. Burkina had cinema with Fespaco, Senegal had the Saint-Louis jazz festival… Since 2008, Côte d’Ivoire has Femua. " The concept ? Bring one or two international headliners to Anoumabo, usually a French rapper and an African singer. And add local artists, who have a golden opportunity to make themselves known on a global scale.

"Love's Spite"

But all of this has a price: the "lovely resentment", in A'Salfo's words, of part of the Ivorian public. “The image of Magic System is ambivalent, confirms Léo Montaz. There are those who feel great national pride for the career they had and those who say that Magic System's zouglou stopped with Premier Gaou and that afterwards, they only did pop for whites. The zouglou groups that are really a hit in Côte d'Ivoire are Yodé

For Magic System, it was also necessary to give up the protest dimension which was the soul of zouglou. A'Salfo assumes it: "Ivorian democracy has gone beyond the era of the founding fathers, it has entered the multiparty system. Doing politics in music today means putting a brake on its unifying momentum. There is no neutrality in Côte d'Ivoire and we were quickly given a partisan label. As soon as an artist takes a stand, he loses all his fans on the other side. This is why the zouglou continues to sing about social facts but no longer denounces political facts. Some did, but at their expense. »

Among them, the reggaeman Tiken Jah Fakoly, who was widely criticized for his support for Alassane Ouattara, or Les Galliets, whose participation in Laurent Gbagbo's campaign clip in 2010 cost their careers. As for Yodé and Siro, they were sentenced in 2020 to a one-year suspended prison sentence for having questioned the prosecutor Richard Adou on the post-election violence and denounced the instrumentalization of justice by the power. A'Salfo, he chose to get closer to the presidential couple, and in particular to Dominique Ouattara. The first lady, present at the opening ceremony of Femua, is even the godmother of the Magic System foundation.