Concert Report: Takana Zion & Friends in Conakry, Guinea 2022
10/06/2022 by Gardy Stein
This is not just another concert report. This is a heartfelt homage to a country and its people, to a remarkable man and his crew, to an exceptional artist and his music. I can say without exaggeration that the "concert" I'm about to report on was the biggest, most intense, most memorable and most exciting event I ever witnessed. But first things first…
Reggaeville received an invitation to cover a concert entitled "Takana Zion - 15 ans de success", and after accepting, everything was arranged smoothly and efficiently by the local team in Guinee and their French partner, Maxime Nordez aka iWelcom. All I had to do was grab my work tools, board the plane and go, but nothing had prepared me for what the next days had in store for me, my colleague Franck Blanquin from France (reporting for Reggae.fr), and the 14 musicians invited from abroad. Linking up with the artist Tiwony on the flight from Paris, we were picked up at the airport in Conakry, and, after a late meal at Hotel Onomo, we went straight to bed, as the coming weekend promised to be busy.
Friday, September 30th – Zion City
Friday morning, we meet Tidiany Toure from Team Takana, who will accompany us for the rest of our stay, and the members of the group who will play with Takana Zion on Sunday. It is a joyful bunch of 12 extremely talented musicians, and a short introduction is due here: Jason Wilson, drummer, producer and a physical manifestation of energy; Junior Bass (playing the instrument his name suggests); Alex Armel and Natty Joh (who hails from Abidjan) on guitars; Daniel Adelaide and Fayce on keyboard; a mighty brass section consisting of Rico Gaultier on sax, Stéphane Montigny on trombone and Cédric Thomas on trumpet that can bring any harmony home. While those in themselves make up a full band already, they were completed by the angelic voices of the backing trio consisting of Dominique LaRose, Denise Cairo and Sandra Oujagir (whom I had met at the Ostróda Reggae Festival in Poland earlier this summer).
After breakfast, all of them plus Tiwony, Franck and myself are shoved into two cars and a minibus, and off we go to the final rehearsals for the big show. Our destination is Zion City, a community Takana has started to build a few years ago in the district of Coyah (learn more about that project in our interview with the artist, published soon right here). Due to bad roads and heavy traffic, it takes us almost 3 hours to get there, but the African sights and sounds and smells that accompany us on the trip are a perfect introduction to the colorful, vibrant reality of Guinea.
Reaching the gates of Zion City, we enter another world altogether. We roll down a slight slope and come to a halt in front of a house painted in bright red, gold and green. An image of Takana Zion is painted on the upper part of the building, and the real Mangana, as the artist is affectionately called by his people, welcomes us to this piece of paradise he's building.
We are offered a fresh coconut and are then introduced to Souleymane Ben Bangoura aka Shaka, who runs the place and shows us around a bit. While the band, who were here already yesterday, unload their instruments, we marvel at the calm beauty of the location: lush green hills in the distance, a flat stony cliff where the ocean meets a river, set with chairs and tables, a swimming pool, and three main buildings between which busy activity unfolds. Behind the main living compound, fresh fish is grilled, and from within, we hear voices chanting. I am told that there is a group of religious elders who will pray all afternoon for the success of the event on Sunday, and, later on, they will sacrifice a sheep together with Takana.
Other cars keep arriving, and suddenly there are several Guinean journalists who want to be part of this final rehearsal. Mohamed from RTG (Guinea's national TV station), after doing a short interview with Takana, even asks me a few questions and then takes shots from Zion City, which will be aired in the main news on Saturday, October 1st. All this makes me realize the magnitude of the planned show – it's not just a concert, really, it's an event of national importance and celebrated as such. As if to confirm that the Mangana's connections reach far beyond his country's borders, in comes a video call from Winston McAnuff from Jamaica, who is passed from hand to hand and greeted as family.
Meanwhile, the band is all set, and after a hearty meal of grilled fish and rice, they start the practice in the second building. With a setlist of 34 songs (!), that's a real challenge, but the musicians and the singer are all professionals and quickly agree on the perfect tempo and flow, and local sound engineer Djibril Sylla aka DJ Kolo 150 makes sure they sound the part. Watching these people work together reveals the positive chemistry between them, and I begin to understand why Takana chose those artists in particular to play with him: not only are they all masters of their craft, but also each one of them is a wonderful person, a pure soul that resonates with the beautiful music they create, and it is so much fun to hang out with them.
Saturday, October 1st – Conakry Adventures
Since the night was long, we are slow to start the day. However, there is a press conference scheduled at 2pm, and Franck and I are picked up early by our driver Jean Sékou to arrive in time at the Maison de la Presse where it takes place. We are welcomed by Aly "Bongo" Léno, Takana's press spokesman here, who also moderates the conference. Again, I am stunned to see the amount of attention this artist commands – the big room is full of journalists, and it seems like most Guinean public and private stations (both TV and Radio) are there. When Takana Zion enters, they rush forward to take pictures of him and the two guests he brought, Tiwony and Gunman Xuman, a rapper from Senegal. Also on the panel are the event organizer, Mohamed Justiss, and Moustapha Sow, the marketing director of Orange Guinée, one of the main sponsors, as well as Takana's sister Melia Soumah.
For the next hour or so, the journalists ask questions about the preparations of the event, its line-up, security and ticket sales, but also about more general subjects such as international collaborations and the importance of promoting Guinean artists. Asked about the "worst memory of his career", Takana just smiles and says he has but good ones, as he focuses on the positive.
Back in the hotel, Tiwony surprises us with a huge plate of a national dish: Konkoé (grilled fish) in a Sauce de Feuille (spicy cooked leaves) with white rice. Yummie! A little after that, Tidiany comes to us and says we should all meet in the parking lot for a little trip. Thinking that we will take a short city tour or go to a restaurant or whatever, I don't bother changing my casual outfit, and we jump in the car waiting for us.
Not even the driver seems to know where we are going (he just follows the band's minibus from which Tidiany leads the way), and next to me, Franck jokes that we are now going to see the president. Little did we know that this was the right guess… with embassies and business houses appearing left and right, we clearly arrived in Conakry's administrational district, and when we come to a halt in front of a huge building, we are told to leave all our bags and mobile phones in the car. We then follow Takana, who was waiting for us, and enter the presidential palace. A tight security check at the gate and heavily armed soldiers everywhere convince us that this is serious, and that we will indeed meet the Guinean president in a moment. Sandra and I are commenting on our complete lack of an official outfit, but, well, we can't change this now. We pass more soldiers, all of whom respectfully greet the artist we follow, and finally arrive at a spacious antechamber where we are asked to sit down. After half an hour or so, a door opens, a dozen soldiers rush in to form a tight half circle, and then we stand face to face with the impressive figure of S.E. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, interim president of the Guinean Republic. He greets all of us with a firm handshake, welcomes us to his country and wishes us success for tomorrow's concert. After taking a quick picture, we are released and, a little dazed and overwhelmed by the whole experience, return to our cars. Another Conakry memory that will last for a lifetime!
We then proceed to the Restaurant Terrasse Aquarium, where we are treated to food and drinks by the Mangana, and the sound of the rolling waves behind us, the loud music pumping from next door and the band members joking and laughing all around me slowly lift the surreal sense of this adventure. Since the hotel is not far, we take a walk to let the delicious food and the excitement of the day sink in, accompanied by our driver, who follows us with the car in walking speed so that the headlights illuminate our path lest we stumble or fall. One of the many small gestures of care and mindfulness with which our hosts continually make sure we are safe, and that touch me deeply. Feeling at home here already!
Sunday, October 2nd – The Epic Concert
Excitement is in the air, as this is not only the day of the big Takana Zion concert, but also a national holiday in the country: Happy Independence Day, Guinee! While, every other day, heavy traffic was audible from the street across my room, today everything is quiet, as roads are blocked for the parade scheduled for later. Soon enough, I hear music approaching slowly, and throngs of people march along the street: a woman's union wearing white shirts imprinted with slogans for this 64th Independence Day, military divisions of different ranks, and Guineans dressed in reg, gold and green, the country's national colors. In fact, the Guinean flag makes it almost obligatory for this land's inhabitants to love Reggae music, and how much they do will become obvious today.
There must be a big assembly somewhere nearby, as loud cheers and speech snippets waft through the open window, but I am busy packing my stuff and preparing for the big show. Jason, Daniel and sound engineer Serge aka Serial-P already left to do a final soundcheck at the stadium, and around 4pm, Franck and me are getting ready to reach the place, too. Thanks to Aly Bongo, I have a running order that announces the first artists playing at 6pm, and since we don't know how long the trip to the stadium will take, we start out well early with our driver Jean.
As it turns out, that was a wise decision. The streets are full of people celebrating their country, waving flags of red, gold, and green, honking at each other and us – a joyful vibe! The closer we get to the Stade GLC du Nongo where the concert takes place, the thicker the throng becomes, and when we reach the first gate, it's almost impossible to drive anymore. After being stuck for a couple of minutes, Shaka emerges from a blue Jeep ahead of us, and tells Jean to follow him because we have to reach another gate to get in. Slowly but steadily we progress through the crowd, but when our little motorcade reaches the next gate, a loud turmoil starts, as people think that Takana is in the jeep, which has tinted windows and the artist's stickers all over. From all directions, the fans rush closer, whooping and jumping on the car that still moves at walking speed, and it's only after Shaka explains to them that the Mangana is not yet there that things calm down and we finally reach the stage.
It's 6pm sharp, and the opening act, Nika Bella, already finished her performance. A dancer has just entered the stage, impressing us with his acrobatic moves despite a missing leg. After him, a little boy dressed in the national colors comes up, singing Guinee's national anthem, and the crowd, already big but growing by the minute, sings along with him. I have installed myself on stage to film his performance, but suddenly my eyes sting and I start coughing, and people all around are covering their mouth and nose with towels, shirts or tissues. Teargas! As part of security measures, some police or military tanks have been positioned at the entrances, and one of them must have released the gas to stop people from running over the fences. Takana Zion is such a beloved national hero that everyone wants to see him tonight, it seems, and although he has kept the price for the tickets intentionally low (25,000 Guinean Francs each, which roughly equals 3 €), not all can afford to get in. I am told later that, just moments before the show, the entry was made free, and thousands of fans who had stayed outside to at least hear their idol were able to come in.
During the following three hours, many local artists grab the mic for their meticulously timed slots of 5 minutes each, and I am impressed by the efficacy with which the organizers follow the schedule. Not all artists announced on the list show up on stage (simply because they can't make their way through the throng outside in time), and thus a little improvisation results in some last-minute changes in the line-up. I am introduced to the voices of El Diaspo, Zico Zion, Mr. Al, Cam's Melodie, Satina Zion, and Fulani Boy, all of them enriching this memorable evening with their different styles – some including traditional elements, some focusing on more modern styles like Hip Hop, Trap or Afrobeats.
In between their slots, the moderators Moussa Daraba, Mimiche Diabaté and Nasser Kleit mention some milestones of Takana's career, listing all of his albums, for example, and an Orange spokesman walks up to some visitors for a quiz, sharing out goodie bags to the winners. Security forces and sanitary workers do a great job rescuing people who fainted from the thick crowd and bringing them to a tent behind the stage where they are taken care of. In fact, the whole organization team deserves greatest respect, as everything is well-planned and executed, despite the crazy number of visitors still coming in.
Darkness falls around 7:30 pm, and the stage program continues with Royal Sanke, Kaporo Mengue, Mousto Camara, and King Domiral, who sings a song called Ma Guinée to which thousands of mobile phones light up. Between the performance of Spaik Yo and Aly Baba, the moderator talks to the crowd a bit, and his statement that "we are proud to be together today, we are proud to represent the red-gold-and-green!" is enthusiastically cheered by the crowd.
The last performances before the main concert starts are reserved for artists well-known in Guinee: Fish Killer, for instance, who enters stage with a full dancing crew and two or three highly energetic songs to which the audience sing along to; an artist called One-Time; the female MC Queen Rima and, on the last slot, Wu Man. The only one I've heard about before this night is King Alasko, as his song Jamaïque has been running up and down our driver's radio. He also delivers a great show, and although the crowd definitely doesn't need to be heated up, the excitement rises again when the big moment approaches.
While the band take their places behind their instruments at 9pm, the moderator turns to the audience again, thanking them for their loyal support throughout the years: "This is a concert to show our fans our gratitude, our appreciation, and to thank you for 15 years of success, of love, of hard work and solidarity. We wish to thank everyone involved in the organization of this concert, the security, the press, and of course our sponsors, Orange Guinée, SOUGUIBEC and SAM Guinée Business Marketing.", he says, and adds, alluding to a post Takana had made a couple of days earlier: "Can the Mangana be boycotted? Can a concert that brings together all of us in a peaceful manner like this be boycotted?". The crowd answers with a roaring "No!" and loud shouts of "Mangana! Mangana!" echo through the night. I am told later that, including the people who came in for free in the last minute, around 100,000 people were present, which is an incredible number never seen before in the stadium or at any of Takana's previous concerts. The vibrant hum of their voices and excitement is almost palpable when the musicians make a quick final soundcheck and then, to a gripping Nyabinghi beat, the artist everyone came to see enters the stage. Impressively dressed in white pants, a sparkling silver vest and a white jacket with black polka dots, he is accompanied by two flag-bearers who position themselves to both sides of the stage, their colors of red, gold and green mirrored by the stunning outfits of the backing vocalists. Takana Zion commands attention from the very first moment, chanting and moving to the beat, and I have to admit that the objectivity a journalistic report normally demands is blown away this very minute – the words below are more or less a very personal account of the evening!
After the intro, the artist welcomes his fans and leads the band on a fast pace through songs like When Jah Speak, My Music, Zion Prophet, Jeune Fille and Pas Soif De Gloire, and the following three hours seem to melt away in a rapture of colorful images, pumping sounds and conscious messages. The audience know all of Takana's songs by heart, as tens of thousands of voices join in to sing along.
One of many highlights of the show is the song Rasta Government. Mobile phones and flags are waved left to right in the audience, and the artist's voice rings strong all over the location, despite having been in heavy use throughout the last days. During the subsequent Jah Kingdom, the artist sits down for a Djembe solo that receives a big forward, and by the time the beautiful Mikhi Kobie starts to play, greeted even louder by the crowd, Takana has taken off his jacket and sunglasses and loosened the bun of dreads, pacing the stage like the lion he is. He shares singing the song with his fans, starting one line and holding out the mic for them to finish – a sweet sweet vibe! He then kneels down, singing about the Most High in Jah Kingdom and thus giving praises, a humble gesture that captures his whole attitude of gratitude, also expressed in the subsequent Reggae Donkili and Sekou Ko No, both of which hail important figures in the history of Reggae and Black Liberation. Good Life and Protect Myself continue these conscious vibes, and between the songs, Takana touches base with his fans by the call-and-answer of "Jah" – "Rastafari".
With tunes like Foula Mousso, Ganja and Samson, the Dancehall massive in the place gets their spot as well, and especially the latter song is accompanied by shout-alongs and a lot of jumping madness. I just hope that nobody gets hurt in the tightly packed crowd! For the next set of songs, I join my press colleagues on the side of the stage and dance along with them to Kanamacina, another one of my personal favorites, excellently delivered by the band. Their energy on stage is amazing to behold, smiling at each other and Takana, singing along even, dancing to the beat they create…
After the powerful Three Six Clash, Takana says something in Susu (or Malinké?) and then introduces one of the elders who had prayed for the success of the concert on Friday as his "spiritual minister". Indeed, their benedictions have helped to keep both fierce sun and heavy rains away – the whole concert was blessed with fine weather, a small miracle in this rainy season, where it has been raining every other day. Merci!
Following a spontaneous idea, the Mangana then asks backing vocalist Dominique "Larose" for a Djembe solo, and she gladly complies, as she's been a drummer for years. Her performance is greeted with loud applause from the audience, and, beaming, she joins Sandra and Denise once more for the delivery of Rise Up and Conakry. For the subsequent mash-up (of International Repatriation and Burn Up, if I'm not mistaken), the Congo Jesse, as Takana is also called, invites two guests on stage who came to Conakry especially for this occasion: Tiwony from France and Gunman Xuman from Senegal, who take turns grabbing the mic and making the massive go wild. They were actually supposed to perform 2 of their own songs each, but time is running out and there are still so many songs waiting to be played…
"I've got the energy inside of me that's burning, burning, burning!" The song Energy, originally a combination with Sizzla recorded in Jamaica, gets everybody dancing again. After Stolen Family and Rainbow Generation, a short moment of shock disrupts the program when an eager fan managed to jump on stage from the left, running towards Takana and prostrating himself in front of him. The security are there in a second, grabbing the man to take him down again, but before they do, the singer touches his heart and indicates a bow, showing that all is good.
A late highlight is Won Wan Won, for which the singer stamps and sings in time with the massive, lifting up their energies once more, and being lifted by the voices of his fellow countrymen and -women in turn. "Dounbouya Famaya!"
Gbin Gbin is a last explosion of Dancehall fyah, and the final Real Blackman, played in an infectious Ska beat that speeds up at the end and plays on after Takana had left the stage, closes the night with a heartfelt joint crescendo of the band. With the chorus of the last song on their lips, the visitors then disperse, much more quickly than I would have expected for a crowd that size, merging with the Conakry night which is still full of Independence Day celebrations.
What a night! A full display of "15 years of success", as the title of the event indicates, presenting songs from the artist's very first album Zion Prophet (2007) via Rappel À L'Ordre (2009), Rasta Government (2011), Kakilambe (2012) and Good Life (2016) to the most recent Human Supremacy (2021). The real significance of what we've just been part of will only sink in later. Right now, everyone around us is happy, elated that all has gone well, that this event has been a worthy acknowledgement of 15 years of success, and of a nation that celebrates 64 years of independence today. Respect to you and your people, La Guinée! Respect to the musicians, who mastered the challenge of learning 34 songs in just under two weeks, and then improvised on top of that during the live show – professionals, each single one of them! Respect to all the artists who have performed today, a live and direct expression of the talent this country harbors.
Respect to the Black Mafia aka 150/777 aka Team Takana, who made all this happen. I can only begin to appreciate how many people have been involved in this project, and how few of them I was actually able to meet during my short stay. U large, each single one of you!
Most of all, respect to this super-human himself, Mohamed Mouctar Soumah aka Mangana aka Congo Jesse aka Takana Zion. His unapologetic pursuit of his visions of peace and unity for his country and beyond, his bright mind and his captivating presence make him special already, but when he starts to sing, all of these qualities flow into the voice that forms the words delivering his message – a voice we all should be grateful to hear, to share this space and time with. I trust that he'll be given the chance to spread his message all over the world in the coming years (broad hint to all festival organizers!), as we are in dire need of such visionary, powerful artists.
I'm full of gratitude for this experience, humbled by the way this country and its people welcomed us and made us feel at home. Indeed, this is one of the most urgent lessons "the West" must learn from "the South": hospitality, cordiality and generosity.
Wontanara – we are together!
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