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From Ivory Coast to West Coast, Fely Tchaco’s Musical Vision Defies Borders

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A woman with bare shoulders, Afro hair and large earrings gazes into the distance.
San Francisco singer, songwriter, fashion designer and cultural activist Fely Tchaco, who was born and raised in Ivory Coast, releases her fifth album, ‘Yita,’ on March 8.  (Courtesy of the artist)

In the spring of 2016, Fely Tchaco joined guitarist Freddy Clarke’s Wobbly World band on a relief mission to Greece bringing medical aid to Syrian refugees. Born and raised in Ivory Coast, Tchaco had seen her fair share of hard times and poverty, but the trip changed her perspective on the way that tribulations are distributed around the world.

In the United States, she’s always aware of “coming from a continent where everyone thinks there are the poorest countries,” she said in a recent conversation via Zoom. “But you see this can happen anywhere. These refugees had experienced terrible trauma, and some were so resilient. I was astonished by this little girl who was so talented playing my djembe.”

She left her drum with the child, and took from Greece the conceptual seeds for her next album. The San Francisco vocalist, songwriter, fashion designer and visual artist releases her gorgeous new project Yita on March 8. Exploring themes of migration and human trafficking, she alternates between luscious ballads and propulsive anthems calling for social justice and the end of police brutality.

The title track, which translates as “deep water” in the Ivorian language of Gouro, is dedicated to African and Middle Eastern migrants who’ve drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean seeking new lives in Western Europe. “Lately, I’ve found out that close friends have lost loved ones on the crossing from Libya,” she said. “It’s my modest way of paying tribute to people seeking better lives.”

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Recorded with the support of a grant the San Francisco Arts Commission, the album features Tchaco singing in her native Gouro as well as French and English. A mesmerizing presence whatever language she writes and performs in, Tchaco possesses a warm, luminous voice that conveys fine gradations of feeling, with particularly vivid hues of elation, dismay and exultation.

Her rhythmic palette reflects her Gouro village upbringing, and she seems to draw on a bottomless well of lithe, incantatory melodies. Tchaco got her start as a performer after running away from home as a teenager, singing French chanson (a la Edith Piaf) in a hotel in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast’s de jure capital. Redolent of her village roots and multiculturally cosmopolitan, her music sounds unlike anything else on the Bay Area scene.

For instance, her song “Cawe Yoko” draws on a swaying rhythm from the Zaouli mask dance, “a rhythm for Gouro women gathering in the village,” she said. “I modernized it for the song. For a lot of years I’ve been exploring ways to get these rhythms known.”

Composer and guitarist Jerry Martin, who co-produced Yita and Tchaco’s previous release, 2011’s Maturite, has been one of her primary creative allies for the past 15 years. Well versed in West African music and jazz, he’s spent much of his career as audio director for various iterations of the SimCity game franchise. Producing albums isn’t something he usually pursues, “but when I first heard her voice she knocked me out,” he said

“Her melodies are really amazing and her creativity is boundless,” Martin said. “She’s got it bubbling up all over the place. But it’s more than that. I’ve met a lot of musicians and what’s striking about Fely is that she’s really a star. She has that vibe to her. It’s just a matter of her career part catching up to her.”

When she’s not writing songs or performing, Fely Tchaco promotes African fabrics and designers.

Tchaco sold her car to finance her first album, 1996’s Amour Perdu, and before leaving Ivory Coast released a follow up with the popular song “Mon Espoir.” But music has never been her exclusive focus. After moving to San Francisco in 2000, she took a pause for several years while raising her daughter and building a new life. As she looked for avenues back into her passion, she was often discouraged by people who said American audiences weren’t interested in songs not in English.

This lack of understanding became fuel for Tchaco’s other career as an educator devoted to highlighting the diversity and vitality of creative expression within Africa. She launched an after school program in 2005 in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Now based at Intersection for the Arts, the African Arts Academy (which is temporarily on hiatus due to the pandemic) builds connections between African and African American cultures.

Tchaco eventually found her way back to music, and also found success as a fashion designer and event producer showcasing African fabrics and styles. She presented her first Modern Ethnic Fashion Runway Show in 2013 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, and has continued to look for ways to combine music, art and design.

And despite taking an untraditional path, Tchaco has hit many musical milestones, including a 2010 Billboard Award nomination for Top Independent Artist and an Independent Music Award for Best Song in the world beat category for her 2012 tune “Goba.”

Tchaco’s parents didn’t encourage her love of music. She found her own way, and when life’s vicissitudes silenced her voice, she always found a way a raise it again in song.

“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “I can say I was born in music. In the 5th grade I had a dream where I saw myself singing on TV. I told my dad and he just laughed, saying, ‘I don’t sing, and your mother doesn’t sing,’ so I kept it as a secret in my heart. One day I ran away and found bands that would let me sing with them. I was very open to explore and meet new people and cultures. Singing helped me escape my stress. Music has helped me a lot.”

Fely Tchaco plans to hold a virtual album release celebration for Yita in the early spring.

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