Ivory Coast was going through a rough patch in the autumn of 2002.
A failed coup on September 19 prompted civil war, forcing a schism between the country’s rebel-held north and government-controlled south. In the years that followed peace talks faltered, presidential mandates were extended and a UN arms embargo attempted to pour cold water on both sides. War raged on, unabated.
Thousands of miles away in France, an expat community looked on in horror. Young, educated and pursuing a better life, seeing their homeland collapse in on itself was understandably demoralizing.
But they had a lifeline; a way to escape into their own safe space of pure joy. It was called Coupe-Decale.
Brash, flamboyant and laced with braggadocio, Coupe-Decale took the image of luxury living and filtered it through music, dance and fashion. Young men dressed to the nines, smoking cigars, quaffing champagne and burning through euros – sometimes literally.
It exuded confidence and success. It said Ivory Coast may be on its knees, but not its people.
Across the airwaves Coupe-Decale filtered back to Ivory Coast, and along with it the culture. Soon its key figures returned too.
Not long after Ivory Coast got its swagger back.
Champagne and cigars
In the late 1990s and the years just before civil war began, the seeds of the Coupe-Decale movement had already been sown.
Young Ivorian immigrants had a taste for nightlife, and were regulars on the Parisian club scene. One night the late Douk Saga, an originator of the scene, walked into the Atlantis Nightclub.
“He saw young people with expensive clothes trying to show off,” recalls radio host and journalist Usher Aliman. “He decided to defy them to see who had the most money.
“He succeeded [in attracting] the attention of everyone and he won the challenge by burning thousands of euros. The others began to wonder ‘Who is he?’”
Saga attracted a group of like-minded big spenders dubbed the “Jet Set,” who despite not creating music, gained a following for their flamboyance and dance moves.
“It took them a few months to become popular in Ivory Coast,” Aliman explains. “People coming back from France spread the word about the Jet Set.”
A CD by a prominent French DJ featured shout-outs to key figures in the Jet Set, which then circulated like wildfire in Ivorian clubs back home. Their names were out there. Newspapers spoke of the return of Douk Saga, and when he and the Jet Set landed on Ivorian soil, mayhem ensued.
“It was something crazy,” artist and Jet Set member Jean-Jacques Kouame recalls. “Every night we were in a nightclub and we used to go out together. People were expecting us. People wanted us at all their parties.”
There was something earnest, and perhaps sincere, obscured by the cigar smoke; trapped within the champagne bubbles.
“Coupe-Decale happened at a time when Ivorians were stressed,” says club owner Gros Bedel. “It was the beginning of the war. Ivorians who went out to work were all rushing home in the evening, because of the curfew.”
“The real goal was to bring joy to Ivorians, because Ivory Coast was crossing moments of distress,” says Kouame. “Music is a good outlet for distressed people.”
Coupe-Decale, a phrase in Nouchi (Ivorian slang), literally translates as “to cheat someone and run away.” The dancing, the extravagance, was a mode of escapism youth culture bought into immediately.
The Jet Set weren’t artists in their own right, and dance was their mode of performance. Initially music was a secondary matter, with clubs spinning Congolese instrumentals with Ivorian lyricists. Not that it mattered what they were singing.
“We don’t care about the lyrics,” says Aliman. “The only message is to tell people ‘life is beautiful, let’s dance.’ And people love it that way. There’s no need for a deeper message.”
Is the party over?
After years of partying, Kouame is taking a break. “I stopped,” says the Jet Set member, “I’ve had my time.”
He still loves Coupe-Decale, but has dropped show-business to concentrate on growing his business and securing his future. Hedonism and financial stability are not natural bedfellows.
The Jet Set, he adds, was never the same after the death of Douk Saga in 2006.
“[His death] brought us together initially,” he says. The Jet Set performed at the funeral in homage to the man dubbed “President”. “Then it divided us,” Kouame adds.
“Fame brings many things, even divisions, and that’s exactly what happened,” he says. Various Jet Set members released albums, many had success, but rather than act as a collective as they did under Saga, key members within Coupe-Decale found themselves competing against each other.
“The movement still exists,” says Kouame, speaking of the present, “but we can’t be united.”
For a genre in such rude health, why the pessimism?
The fate of Coupe-Decale is in different hands now. Prominent artists such as Serge Beynaud, a singer and one-time producer, are racking up millions of hits on YouTube and appealing to a pan-African audience in the post-war era.
Aliman adds that Nigeria, West Africa’s dominant entertainment producer, has adopted Coupe-Decale culture for its own. Perhaps inevitably, this appropriated version is now filtering back to Ivory Coast.
Born out of war, Coupe-Decale appears to be struggling to replicate its euphoric high in peacetime.
“I think at some point the Coupe-Decale will return to its roots,” says Aliman. “There are more and more people who are nostalgic for the Coupe-Decale as it used to be.
“I think if the public demands that the Coupe-Decale gets back to what it was before, it’ll happen.
“Now, when will it be done? I don’t know.”