Drawing on a Dunhill and sipping port, a foreign ambassador sits in an alcove of a Paris hotel bar, pondering the latest Middle East peace talks. But this roving diplomat dresses like a Rastafarian, speaks English, Mandingo and French, sings in Hebrew to Arab audiences and chants Muslim prayers to Zionist Jews.
Alpha Blondy represents no government and describes himself as an "interplanetarian". Not only is he one of the important figures in African music, he is also a peace campaigner with a constituency that stretches from Jamaica to Jerusalem. "GOD means God of Diversity," he says of his philosophy. "I respect Muslims, I respect Christians and I respect Jews, [but] religion is a business that exploits the faith of the believers, and I don't want anything between me and my creator."
Despised by African politicians, targeted by religious zealots, but loved by internationalists and deprived communities, Blondy arrives in London this weekend for one of the biggest concerts of his career.
The son of a Christian father and Muslim mother, the singer was brought up by his grandmother in the rural hinterland of Ivory Coast, where his friends knew him as Kone Seydou. He attended a Koranic school, which he now derides for its "brainwashing" programme of learning prayer by rote rather than preparing students to be "doctors, teachers, mathematicians".
Ivory Coast's position at a cultural and geographic crossroads meant that Blondy developed a broad taste in music. Like many young Francophones, he grew to love the music of the French rocker Johnny Hallyday, but also "Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead..."
In search of rock'n'roll and dreaming of a career as a professor of English, Blondy took his first journey outside Africa and flew to New York. There he underwent a life-changing experience, watching one of reggae's founding fathers, Burning Spear, perform in Central Park. "I was very impressed. I had never heard the power of 100,000 Watts and that was the sound I wanted," he recalls. "I love the village voice Burning Spear has. He's a guy from the farm and I'm a country boy from Dimbokro in the Ivory Coast." For an African away from home, the message of Rastafarianism had special resonance. "Rastafarians were glorifying Africa and that was very important for my own identity as an African," he says. Starting a musical career, he took his new first name from the Bible. His second was his grandmother's mispronunciation of his childhood French nickname, Bandit.
But four years in America took its toll on his mental health. "My computer just jammed," he says. "I had never worked in my life back home. In America, I had to pay my school fees by working part-time as a clerk and as a messenger at the Ivory Coast embassy, and at night in the clubs. It was too much for me to do, for an African lost in the American concrete jungle."
He asked to be repatriated, but his problems were not solved by his return to Africa. His dreadlocks and Rastafarian teachings attracted bewilderment and suspicion. Ultimately, it was the elders who embraced his use of African proverbs sung in Mandingo and Ashanti dialects over reggae rhythms. "The old people said, 'He's not crazy. He's saying things that your parents understand. He's very wise.'"
Appearances on Ivorian television boosted the success of his first album, Jah Glory, and paved the way for him to go to Jamaica and record with The Wailers at Bob Marley's Tuff Gong studios. "It was like getting a reggae diploma," he says. "The first time I was there, I saw Ziggy [Marley's son] as a child. Family Man [The Wailers' bassist Aston Barrett] is still a good friend." Jamaica was a home from home: "When you are in Jamaica, you don't feel lost in a foreign country. People talk loud and when you see them talk you think they might fight and then they burst into laughter. It's Africa!"
Albums such as Cocody Rock (1984) and Apartheid is Nazism (1985) brought him a huge fan base in Africa and Paris and gave him a passport to the world. In 1985, he went to Israel to see the holy sites described in the Bible and Koran, the two books he carries with him. After warnings that he might face hostility, the warmth of his welcome reduced him to tears. "I wanted to see this land that gave birth to Jesus. I went to the Holy Sepulchre, the Mosque, the Wailing Wall." The importance of Jerusalem to Jew, Muslim and Christian alike helped to shape his own religious beliefs. "Spiritually speaking, if you are a believer, Israel is the proof that there's only one God." A year later he released the album Jerusalem, a hit in Israel and around the world.
Blondy refuses to align himself with any religion - including Rastafarianism - and is scathing of the "prevaricators" of any creed that claim to be God's intermediaries. "The Torah gave birth to the Old Testament and the Old Testament gave birth to the Koran. So who has the right to create adversity among those books and among the children of the revealed religions?"
Wearing an orange sun-hat over his Rasta bonnet, dressed in a green woollen vest and leather trousers, he is a relaxed figure who is only moved to indignation when he calls to mind the "extremists" who use religion as a cloak forintolerance. He angrily rejects the "right" of Palestinian suicide bombers to take the lives of others, and is equally vehement that the homophobia of some of his fellow reggae practi-tioners is inexcusable.
Blondy has been invited to perform in Israel three times, as well as in Arab countries such as Tunisia and Algeria. In Jerusalem, his "Sebe Allah Ye" was played on Israeli radio in spite of its opening with a Muslim call to prayer. In Algeria, an army colonel supported his right to wear the Star of David on stage. He says that, wherever he plays, the audience holds the same values. "They have the same faith: they believe in God and they respect life. God brings us together and religion divides us," he says. Not that the authorities are always welcoming. A planned concert in Burkina Faso was cancelled, Blondy believes, because of his criticism of the government in his music.
He is planning an album later in the year, and promises the usual blend of infectious rhythm and contentious lyrics. There is no place in greater need of his message than the Ivory Coast, where he still lives despite the civil war. "I refuse to leave," he says. "I cannot take part in this political, stupid war. I have to stand aside, try to reason and make them realise it's a fratricide."
Blondy believes the Ivorian troubles are the "growing pains" of a young country and that peace will be found. When it is, he promises a free concert of celebration. In Britain, people can hear his messages of unity and tolerance this Sunday evening at the Royal Festival Hall in London when he opens the Meltdown 03 festival, backed by the Solar System, his appropriately international band of African, European and Caribbean musicians.
Meltdown 03, South Bank Centre, London SE1, 8-30 June (020-7960 4242)Reuse content