Peter One country folk ivory coast come back to me

Peter One.

Photo: Angelina Castillo.

Peter One Blends West African Folk With Nashville Country in 'Come Back To Me'

In Come Back To Me, the veteran musician mixes influences from his classic Côte d'Ivoire country-folk albums and his new home of Nashville, Tennessee.

There is a terrible sadness and fragility in Peter One's voice that bookends his career as it currently stands. After many decades, the 67-year-old country singer from Côte d'Ivoire has finally achieved a dream he has harbored since he picked up a guitar: to record an album in Nashville, the place he now calls home. Nearly forty years after his first release, it sounds like a man crawling over the line, his voice breaking as he gropes his way out of the shadows.

His new album,Come Back To Me, a major label release on Verve Forecast, is a lifetime away from the mid-eighties when Peter One, with long-time collaborator Jess Sah Bi, produced a record of majesty in West Africa—one that remains criminally sidelined as a hidden gem rather than a country classic.

Our Garden Needs Its Flowers is a folk/country record of eight blissful songs that pull you up on their wave to crash you back into the wilting sadness of the end of summer. Charged with the certainty of many more youth-filled seasons of sunshine, its sense of freedom fueled the desire for adventure that drove Peter One across to the United States in the 1990s and became his calling card.

"I can dance, I can dance all night," is the sharp rebuke after I ask if he chose to make country music because of two left feet. "I am just not interested in making music to make people dance."

Re-released by Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2018, it roundly evokes happier times: "Listening to country and folk was unusual in Cote d'Ivoire back then in the 70s and still is. Most people who picked up a guitar would do so to play the classics like 'Hey Joe' or 'Hey Jude' –I play the music I love."

Given the opportunity to escape political unrest, the West African artist crossed the ocean to live in the United States, but a music career eluded him. "I worked as a messenger, a security guard; I got a warehouse job, even teaching French in a school in Delaware, but finally, a nursing job magically took me to Nashville."

The hollowness of a failed marriage led him to find happiness with "a wife from my own country," but the nagging feeling that he should not settle until he fulfilled his dreams did not abate until he began recording the Come Back To Me demos in 2018.

"You do things on the side to pay the bills, but I have always had a clear goal." The result is a new record that only falls down when it tries too hard. The rhythms and cadences of West Africa running through the deliberate twang of the southern states of America continue to be his sound, but it is now polished and closely mic'd for a sit-down, adult crowd.

When the third track, "Ejie," floats in on decades of sadness now lost in endless reverb are you left beside yourself in someone else's spiritual process. As his voice cracks with emotion, the overwhelming feeling of someone letting go washes over you—something they have carried for an eternity.

"Bonne Année" will satisfy anyone more in tune with Our Garden Needs Its Flowers. It rings like a lost track off the studio reels in Abidjan. The 67-year-old's vocals, as melodic and playful as they were in the mid-eighties, sweep us into a New Year's Eve party that leaves the bad times behind us for good.

When Peter One left Ivory Coast, he left a country deep in economic crisis and plagued with violence. A post-colonial Africa left in the mire. "I was keeping an eye on what was going on back home for a long time, but it was never getting any better."

The closing song on the record is as stark as it is beautiful, "Birds Go Die Out of Sight (Don't Go Home)," is the tragic plea to a friend not to return to Ivory Coast. "Things have changed, you have changed, you have been here for more than 20 years," he sings over a weeping lap slide guitar. It is a true story of a warning that went unheeded when his friend travelled back to West Africa only to perish. The song contains the emptiness of never being able to return to where we are from, especially a long-gone and cherished past that scattered people far from their homeland understand only far too intensely.

"They said birds go die out of sight

Now I know why you decided it so."

The best conversations Peter One has on this record are the ones he has with himself when it becomes all time, space and then stoic resolution.