"Premier Gaou" tells the story of a man rejected by his girlfriend. The love is there, the song says, but not the money: She's distant because he's too poor, and can't afford to lavish her with the good life. For the band called Magic System, "Premier Gaou" is autobiographical -- a depiction of what the lead singer, Salif "Asalfo" Traoré, went through in the group's home country (Ivory Coast), in their home capital (Abidjan), in their home neighborhood (Marcory). It's local songwriting for what turned out to be a global audience -- an audience that responded to the tune's catchy phrasing and message that, even during bad times, things might get better.
"It's showing the socio-economic difficulties that were happening in Abidjan -- it's about a poor, loving guy whose girlfriend is more interested in his wallet (than him)," says singer Narcisse "Goude" Sadoua, in a phone call from West Africa before flying to San Francisco, where Magic System is performing tonight, Saturday, Nov. 6 at Mezzanine. "If you have money, you can get things you want. If you don't, you can't."
On YouTube, three million people have watched a version of "Premier Gaou" that was uploaded four years ago, with comments reflecting Magic System's worldwide reach. "I'm from Nepal," wrote one person this week, "but I think Magic System rules." Wrote another fan: "This is the official song of Africa."
In a way it is. Magic System sings in African languages (including Bete), not just French, so its songs reflect pre-colonial Africa. And the hip-twisting, arm-waving dance moves that Magic System makes in the video version of "Premier Gaou" originated in Africa -- in Abidjan, during the 1990s, when political unrest gave way to a coup in 1999. The eye-catching dance style is called Zouglou -- and it's an ideal complement to Magic System's uplifting (though at times, bittersweet) music.
The group's other hit songs include "Un Gaou Oran," which features Algerian Rai singer Mohamed Lamine (the YouTube version of the song has more than six million views); and "Meme Pas Fatigue," which features French-Algerian Rai singer Khaled (more than five million YouTube views). Magic System has reached the point of popularity where English-speaking producers have approached them about recording in English -- which the group plans to do.
"We're working on it," says Sadoua, speaking in French to an English-speaking translator. "It's a dream."
Magic System formed in 1996, and first released "Premier Gaou" in 1999. The group has sold more than a million CDs in Africa, has performed throughout France and elsewhere in Europe, and in New York. Tonight's performance is the group's West Coast debut.
"When we started," Sadoua says, "we didn't even know what it is like to be far away from the neighborhood. It was never in our plan. Our songs were more about revealing all the problems in our daily lives. All the trouble we had every day. We were ambassadors for all the troubles we had."
Those troubles were manageable. And in the videos of their songs, Sadoua and the other members of Magic System frequently smile at their circumstances, all the while moving ahead with anyone else who will join them in song and dance.
Magic System performs at Mezzanine in San Francisco TONIGHT, Saturday, November 6, 2010, 8pm. For tickets and information,visit mezzaninesf.com.