Words by Bram Posthumus. Photo by David Commeillas
The Burkinabé musician’s untimely death during a failed coup d’état
On September 21, five days into the stand-off between the people of Burkina Faso and the 1,300-strong presidential guard of deposed president Blaise Compaoré, a man died en route from his home to the hospital. The death was caused by the country’s premier killer, malaria, and the victim was 53-year-old Victor Démé, who was about to start touring the world again in promotion of his new, third album.
Démé’s life and work are intimately bound up with that of the people he sang about. After all, he lived their life, scraping money together in not one but two different ways: if he wasn’t writing songs or performing them with his trademark high-pitched voice accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he was at home, working on his sewing machine. The guitar and the sewing machine – ‘My only possessions in this world,’ as he was fond of saying.
There were two good periods. The first time was when he came back in 1988 from Abidjan, the then capital of Ivory Coast, after a stint with the band Super Mandé. A certain Thomas Sankara had just gained power, also through a coup, and this charismatic army captain captured the hearts and minds of his people – including Démé – by giving them something they had been looking for in the face of French colonial disdain: dignity. It was Sankara who renamed the country, ditching the colonial Upper Volta and adopting Burkina Faso, the Land of the People of Integrity. Démé performed to his heart’s content in bands like Suprême Comenba.
Sankara did not last long; he was deposed in October 1987. The perpetrator was Blaise Compaoré, his brother-in-arms, who betrayed his friend. Démé’s career remained stagnant for years, once again taking to the roads, the bars and the cabarets in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast until two French producers finally gave him the chance, at age 46, to record his first album.
It was the start of Démé’s second life as a successful artist. His eponymous first album [reviewed in #55] was a collection of heartfelt songs that mixed the Djoula tradition his mother had taught him, folk influences from elsewhere in this immensely varied land, Latin styles and, inevitably, the blues. A second album, Deli, followed in 2010 (reviewed in #68). And then it went quiet. It is difficult to ascertain what happened but there is a striking difference between the man with the impish grin on his boyish face looking at us from the cover of his debut album and the much older and greyer face pictured during rehearsals, last year, for his final, and now posthumous, third album, Yakafé.
It looks as if in the wake of Blaise Compaoré’s removal from power by the people of Burkina Faso at the end of October 2014, Démé rediscovered the joys of recording music. Clips from his new album show him in a good mood, walking down the streets of his beloved Bobo (Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city in Burkina Faso). He was preparing the launch of the album this November, to be followed by a tour in France. Everyone was looking forward to the reappearance of ‘Tonton’ (Uncle), as his neighbourhood lovingly called him.
And then the old presidential guards struck, on September 16. Followed by malaria five days later. The guards were defeated two weeks later, but Victor will not return. It’s a loss that’s hard to bear, not only because his new career was still emerging. But just imagine the songs that this expert chronicler of the country and its extraordinary people could have come up with and we will now never hear.