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Peter One blends West African nostalgia with Nashville flair in first solo album

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For more than a decade, Peter One made a living as a nurse working the night shift. Until recently, his colleagues and patients had no idea he was a famous musician in West Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARING INTO THE BLUES")

PETER ONE: (Singing) Oh, I couldn't make it without you, I'm staring into the blues...

SHAPIRO: This is a song from the new album, "Come Back To Me," Peter One's first major label release in the U.S. His rise to fame as a singer songwriter came in the 1980s in Cote d'Ivoire as one-half of a duo behind the acoustic folk LP "Our Garden Needs Its Flowers."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLIPO CLIPO")

JESS SAH BI AND PETER ONE: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Songs from that album became classics across West Africa and beyond. But by 1995, economic and political unrest in Cote d'Ivoire prompted Peter One to emigrate to the United States. He found work teaching French and later in nursing. But he never stopped writing songs.

ONE: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: And he believed it was no coincidence that his nursing job landed him in Nashville - Music City. For years, he pushed through his doubts about breaking back into the industry.

ONE: Right now, I feel rejuvenated. I feel like I'm born again since I'm doing what I like to do.

SHAPIRO: Peter One recently stopped by our studio with his guitar to share more.

ONE: (Singing in non-English language).

Kavudu means let's be one. Let's be together.

SHAPIRO: And is this in the language of Cote d'Ivoire?

ONE: Yes. The Gouro (ph). And I mix it with a little bit of French.

SHAPIRO: Why do you do that?

ONE: It's a message to my people because my country has been divided since the election war in 2010, and we're trying to reconciliate people. So this is my contribution.

(Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: I heard that lyric - we're brothers. Why should we be at war?

ONE: Exactly - (non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: How does it feel to be singing that song, those words, in those languages of your home country so many thousands of miles away?

ONE: I feel really nostalgic, and I'm hoping that they will hear this voice. They will hear this message and embrace it.

ONE: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: When you moved here and began a new career - nursing - was it difficult to let go of the emotion, the artistic expression, the connection with an audience, that you had as a live performer?

ONE: In some sense, it was difficult, but I was prepared. Coming here, I knew that it wasn't going to be easy because I wasn't known here. I was nobody here. So walking in the street here was kind of, you know, easy for me, you know? No stress because nobody knew me. I had to start from scratch.

SHAPIRO: How many years did you work as a nurse - and you still do?

ONE: Yeah, I'm still doing. I've been working for 16 years now.

SHAPIRO: What do your co-workers at the nursing home think?

ONE: They didn't know that I was a musician, and I had to tell them because I started, you know, traveling, being off work all the time. I had to tell them that this is why I've been taking off all the time.

SHAPIRO: How did they react?

ONE: Surprised. The administrator of the facility where I'm working - he was kind of - why you didn't tell us that before?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: When I listen to the album, there are moments I feel like, oh, I'm in the Deep South of the United States. And there are moments on this album I feel like, oh, I'm in West Africa. Can you show us with your guitar what those two sounds feel like in your fingers?

ONE: OK, let me...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

ONE: ...Play you something very typical from the Ivory Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

SHAPIRO: Is that musical line from one of your songs, or is that just typical?

ONE: Yeah, that's something else.

SHAPIRO: What makes that so typical?

ONE: It's the beat.

SHAPIRO: The beat - the rhythm of it.

ONE: The rhythm, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And what would it sound like to play something that is typically Nashville?

ONE: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

ONE: (Singing) Don't go home. Don't go home. There's nothing for you there, nothing for you to see. Don't go home. Don't go home.

This is "Birds Go Die Out Of Sight." It's on the album.

SHAPIRO: That song does have a very Nashville feel, but I understand the lyrics are about a friend of yours who returned to Cote d'Ivoire, where he died.

ONE: Yeah, he was a friend of mine living here in the United States - more than 20 years here. And at some point, he started saying that he wanted to go home. But the moment he started saying that wasn't the right time to me. The country just was out of election war, and the situation wasn't back to normal yet. So I kept telling him not - don't go home yet. It's not time. And he didn't listen to me. He left. And by the time I knew it, he was dead less than three months after he left.

SHAPIRO: It's such a poetic title for the song - "Birds Go Die Out Of Sight." You could have called the song, don't go home.

ONE: That's true.

SHAPIRO: But there's something so beautiful and metaphorical about "Birds Go Die Out Of Sight."

ONE: Yeah. To me, it was like he was just trying to find somewhere where he can, you know, finish in peace.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ONE: (Singing) On my own, I came a long, long way.

SHAPIRO: You're on a national tour right now?

ONE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: You have played the Grand Ole Opry. You've opened for huge stars like Jason Isbell. You're 67 years old. Do you think you feel this moment differently than you would have if it had happened in your 30s or your 40s?

ONE: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I would feel different because I wouldn't have the same experience I have right now. Maybe I would be bigheaded...

(LAUGHTER)

ONE: ...Which I'm not now. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Now you're humble.

(LAUGHTER)

ONE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything's come on the right time. God has his plans.

SHAPIRO: Was there ever a moment you thought, it's time for me to give up this dream?

ONE: Yeah, it came - it happened a couple times. But every time, I said to myself, you know what? Let's say forget about music, and do what we'll have to do. That's when the best inspiration comes, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

ONE: And the best...

SHAPIRO: I can't give up now.

ONE: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I just thought of a great song.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

SHAPIRO: Well, Peter One, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Do you want to give us one final song to go out on?

ONE: Yeah, one more song? Why not a love song?

SHAPIRO: I love a love song.

ONE: (Laughter).

(Singing) Sweet rainbow, I love you. Wonderful baby, I love you so...

SHAPIRO: That's singer-songwriter Peter One. His new album, "Come Back To Me," is out now.

ONE: (Singing) ...Baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Stu Rushfield
Valentina Rodriguez

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