Yao Bobby, vocal recordings in the Colibri Studios, Lomé Togo (photo: Simon Grab)

1+1=5 Tracks from Lomé: «Wake Up»

Within a hyperactive week of studio recording in Lomé Togo, Yao Bobby and Edgar Sekloka produced 5 tracks from scratch – together with skilled musicians and a patient sound engineer. Featured track: «Wake Up». Benjamin LeBrave, founder of the Akwaaba record label in Accra, talked to Yao Bobby about state pressure and his way to keep on standing straight. This production week was part of the first season of 1+1, a worldwide recording project by Norient and Sound Development in Summer 2015. For more material (tracks, videos, articles, photos) on 1+1 check the project website here.

Speaking up as an artist in a country like Togo takes a lot of courage and determination. Self censorship is so strong, especially within the media, it's difficult to determine precisely what can be said without getting into trouble. Some artists however choose to tell it like is, no matter the consequences. To achieve this, they can't rely on the usual mechanisms of a local music scene – radio and TV promotion, live concerts – because neither of these outlets are very open to conscious music.

This is the reality faced by Lomé-based Yao Bobby. In one of his songs, he clearly raps: «The Togolese people are sleeping, no worries, we dance gweta» («gweta» is the name of a recent popular dance in Togo). Yao further explains: «This is the music scene in Togo today, music for entertainment, for dancing, to think about something else. There's almost no conscious music anymore.»

It's not just conscious hip hop that seems closed off, it's hip hop as a whole: «For the past few years cultural operators don't program any hip hop anymore. It's even hard to get airplay. But there's a vibrant underground activist scene which keeps busy.»

Within a Broad International Network

Thankfully this underground determination is not entirely invisible: an international network of like-minded artists, activists and entities receptive to free speech and creativity is shaping up. Yao shares: «In Togo I work with Elom 20ce, old school guys like Roger Damawuzan or Ali Bawa. [In Africa] I am close to guys like Art Melody, Joey le Soldat, Xuman, Awadi, Joe Dama of Tata Pound, or even Smarty. In Togo a lot of my songs don't get any visibility in the media, but I know I can go and perform in Senegal, Mali, Benin. I've been supported by RFI, which opened a lot of doors, and I released my previous album on the US-based Nomadic Wax label.»

Building such a broad, international network not only allowed Yao to spread his message to a wide international audience, it has also helped Yao open up creatively: «With Histoires d'un Continent, I was interested in our traditional music, rhythms and instruments. On Afreekan Village I surrounded myself with many musicians, we looked into afrobeat, music from the 1970s and 1980s. My lyrics too are richer, I traveled a lot since – and because of – the last album. What I write reflects that.»

Rehearsals with Agbovon Mak (trumpet), Kossi Mawun (drums) and Ali Bawa (vocals), Lomé Togo (photo: Simon Grab)

Togo itself is changing in a way that would normally justify increased exposure for socially charged artistry. «Banks are opening up everywhere, people drive big cars, you can say that today there is an upper middle class emerging that didn't exist even in 2010. But the rich are getting richer, and a large portion of the population is completely forgotten by the State. We build 10 story buildings but still many people don't even have access to toilets. Looking in from outside, it seems Togo is evolving, but when you speak to people, when you ask them about what goes on in every day life, you know things aren't going well, families are hungry because everything is getting very expensive.»

Conscious Hip Hop Remains

This evolution, and the Togolese media's frigidity only fuel Yao to continue: «We fight every day to make sure the public hears us, we organize, we create spaces, events. Conscious hip hop remains because its artists are not ready to give up. Of course our lyrics make people think, sometimes they even scare, and people here have too many problems to worry about that. But what we say also speaks to everyone, from school children to grand mothers. You have to flex your language to reach different people, different generations, different social classes. And then the message cuts across.»

Yao Bobby testing lyrics, Colibri Studios, Lomé Togo (photo: Simon Grab)


Song written by Yao Bobby and Edgar Sekloka
Produced & Recorded at Colibri Studios, Lomé Togo, August 26 - September 04, 2015
Mastering by Dan Suter, echochamber Zurich

Yao Bobby, vocals
Edgar Sekloka, vocals
Rodrigue Ade, Recording Colibri Studios
Ali Bawa, vocals
Wihelmine Harlley, vocals
Kossi Mawun, drums
Agbovon Mak, trumpet
Ahavi Kodzo, guitar
Ahouandjogbe Gaétan, bass

Produced by Norient and Sound Development, Switzerland
Production Manager: Simon Grab


Published on March 18, 2016

Last updated on April 05, 2020


BBrave, aka Benjamin LeBrave, is a journalist, DJ, and the founder of the Akwaaba Record Label based in Accra Ghana. He writes for various magazines, as The Fader, Thump, Africa is a country, and other online publications.
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