Nearly 1 a.m. at a wedding in Los Angeles, and the crowd was finally beginning to tire. Around me, gele head ties came off, hand fans came out, and elegantly dressed women, decked out in the most exquisite asoebi, took their seats around the wedding hall to catch their breaths. The happy couple beamed from their seats, the hall lights grew bright, final drinks were poured, and people began to say their goodbyes. Then “1er Gaou” came on.
The wedding guests rushed back to the dance floor, roaring in delight as the familiar drums and guitar riffs of “1er Gaou” saturated the wedding hall. I had not heard the song in months and immediately I felt as though I had gone back in time. The DJ, wry smile on his face, knew exactly what he had done. He had saved the very best for last. This song, twenty years old now, older than many West Africans, still has so much power over us. As I squeezed myself between excited aunties and quick-footed youngsters, I felt the song’s power in every cell of my body, its cross cultural history in my gyrating hips.
I have never understood the lyrics to Magic System’s “1er Gaou.” The song is primarily in French and like many West Africans who find themselves on the British side of colonial Africa, I’m separated from my brethren by a language barrier. Now, thanks to Wikipedia, I know that “1er Gaou” is about a man who refuses to take back his former lover after she first rejects him. But this is precisely what makes this Ivorian song so important to me, to all of us immigrants, dancing in weddings and birthday parties in our little corners of the world. It has transcended language and borders for two decades, traveled across seas to remind us of the small joys wherever we live.
Dancing to “1er Gaou” takes little effort because the song is so rhythm heavy. To dance to “1er Gaou” one must pay attention to their center. They must remember their hips, to move them back and forth, side to side. They must remember not to be shy, not to let the fear of looking goofy keep them from giving themselves fully to the ringing bass and the lead singer’s loud tenor. On the dance floor at the wedding, I dance my heart out, working up a good sweat. I shake my hips and flail arms and throw my head back and absorb the song like I’m hungry. When the song is finally over and we are ushered out of the wedding hall, I shake the sweat from my eyes and I am reborn.
“1er Gaou” came out in Africa in 1999 when I was 8 years old. It was played everywhere, at the market, at school, vibrating through our lives, as ubiquitous as air. But I remember and cherish “1er Gaou” not only because it was one of the biggest hits in Africa in the 90s, but also because it is now the soundtrack to a bygone era.
As an immigrant now living in America, whenever I hear “1er Gaou,” when I’m at a party, when I’m thumbing through my Spotify playlists, I am suddenly transported back to Nigeria, in a childhood that was as magical as it was profound. I am walking home from school as cars crisscross the main road. I am in my father’s village at Christmas, dancing with my large extended family. I am walking the red earth of my mother’s hometown, kicking up dust with my cousins. When “1er Gaou” enters my ears, I have a history, one that I share with the larger African immigrant community in economic exile in Britain and America and Italy and Brazil. I am connected to a past that often feels far from me.
When I first arrived in America in 2001, I remember the crushing homesickness that enveloped me. I remember feeling out of place and looking for safety in the music from home. I watched the music video for “1er Gaou” until the tape broke. I learned to dance to it, to dance with my whole body. I learned that home can be close even when you are far away, and that when you carry love in your heart, you can never be lonely.