CULLY - He is majestic. The concert has just ended, and the audience is on fire. Opening his long thin arms, he takes a bow; in his checked shirt, he has the body of a Maasai warrior.
The Cully Jazz Festival audience is shell-shocked by the performance they have just witnessed – totally under the spell of Gael Faye, who sings about the meeting between a croissant and pili-pili pepper. The song is about his birth in Bujumbura, Burundi, from a French nomadic father and an exiled Rwandan mother.
“Despite the rugged roads, in the dust plume of the white and dry seasons / Despite the doubt, the torrential rains / Despite the muddy torrents flowing into the plain / The croissant, the chili pepper taste like a child.” This song – a tropical jam that accelerates again and again and again – is his birth certificate. Faye, 30, white, black, with freckles, leaves the stage. The night is young.
In the afternoon, he bumps into Oxmo Puccino, a large man with childlike eyes who will go on stage after him. They know each other well. Faye questions the hip-hop artist from Mali about tours, routine and how to prevent routine. Their backs are rounded as they talk face to face, like a boxer and his trainer.
A few years ago, Puccino reinvented French rap. He added fiction, freeze frame shots and dolly zooms to a music that was often mired in reality. He worked with real musicians, jazz and rock musicians, who helped him fill the gaps between samples.
When Puccino heard Faye's music, he asked him if he needed anything, or what he could do to help jump-start his machine. It is often said that hip-hop is a culture without memory. But in this encounter between two poets of African descent – with their Parisian cockiness – the communication is direct. It is an initiation taking place in a sacred wood that looks more like a concrete jungle.
Faye doesn't like dwelling on his past, especially when it is used to sell something. He was born in Burundi: when he was 13, caught up by the Rwanda genocide that was fomenting in the silent but deadly bullets, he had to leave his little hilly country hurriedly.
He wrote his first song in this context of urgency. Not knowing what use these verses could be in an escape. Still he wrote. Arrived in Paris, in the rap workshops of the local youth center, he wrote. During the poetry slam evenings organized by the Chant d’Encre (Ink Song) coop that turned France into a rhythmic nation, he wrote. When he started the band Milk Coffee and Sugar with his soul brother Edgar Sekloka, he was still writing. Until he finally understood why he was writing -- until that moment when he published his LPPili Pili sur un croissant au beurre ("Pili Pili Pepper on a Croissant"), where the words were not an analgesic anymore, but a transcendent act of presence.
“A chromosomal mess”
Just before his concert, Faye invites people backstage, to his dressing room. A member of the orchestra asks for a bottle of old rum – “a ritual before the concert.” It is a cold evening, in this prolonged Swiss winter. Faye, talks about his last name, a red herring in itself: it sounds Senegalese, but it actually comes from south-central France. Some pronounce it “fay,” but you should pronounce it “fie.”
In his song Metis ("Mixed-race"), he describes himself as “a chromosomal mess.” When he was 16, he read Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, which he considers a treaty of alchemy. “When I came to France, I discovered I was a black, whereas I had been a white kid in Burundi. My parents told me I was 50/50. That’s how I was for a while. White with whites. Black with blacks. The writer Frantz Fanon shows that colored people are not here to conform to one identity. I am a river, mixing two tributaries.”
Faye does not systematically praise the melting of two cultures into one. He prefers the notion of créolité – embracingeach culture in its specificity. He likes Edouard Glissant, the great poet and writer from Martinique, who once wrote: “We are taught racism in the name of culture. Multiculturalism does not bring the promised solution. In a melting-pot society, some find the urge to look for purity. I don’t think coloring everyone in is enough to become more tolerant.”
In his ragbag of different identities, Faye, combines raps by French hip-hop artists X-Men or Lunatic, with poems by Jacques Prévert or René Depestre. He does not try to rubberstamp his taste for the urban word with academic references.
He arrives on the stage. He is not afraid anymore. He is a thin warrior, whose voice leaves others silent. He revisits Congolese rumbas, Yoruba Afrobeats, West Coast funk, a trumpet that sounds like Freddie Hubbard's. You can hear the voice of Bonga from Angola, or a rap from Brooklyn.