Peter One, the Beloved Ivory Coast Singer, Returns to Music With a New Album and a Fan in Jason Isbell

peterone-interview - Credit: Angelina Castillo*
peterone-interview - Credit: Angelina Castillo*

Singer-songwriter Peter One left his home in Côte D’Ivoire in 1995 amid rising political unrest in the West African country that eventually boiled over into two civil wars in the 2000s. His life in the United States began in New York and then Delaware, before landing in Nashville, where he now lives. Along the way, he found community with fellow displaced Ivorians, including a friend who inspired a song from Peter One’s first new release in more than 30 years.

“Birds Go Die Out of Sight (Don’t Go Home),” which appears on Peter One’s forthcoming album Come Back to Me (out May 5), refers to a phenomenon in nature that he saw play out with his Ivorian friend. This individual had continually expressed a desire to return home, even though it wasn’t safe for him there.

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“Almost all the time he was complaining, ‘I’m gonna go home,’ knowing that home was not peaceful,” Peter One says on a Zoom call from an Indiana tour stop where he’s opening for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. “I kept telling him, ‘It’s not the right time. Let the country come back to normal. In the meantime, take time to prepare. Because home is not what you have left. Home is different now.”’

Peter One lost touch with his friend for a few months, only to learn some heartbreaking news — the man had died shortly after returning to Côte D’Ivoire.

“I was so shocked, I was really, really shocked,” he says. “To me, it’s like he knew that it was almost the end for him.”

“Birds Go Die Out of Sight” could almost be mistaken for an upbeat song by the way its buoyant, countryish acoustic guitar riff and lilting rhythm transform Peter One’s impassioned pleas to his friend. “Hold your horses, brother/Don’t you go/Can’t you see, things have changed and you have changed,” he sings, with Allison Russell sweetly echoing his calls to “don’t go home.”

Peter One may be gearing up for his major-label debut in the United States, but he had a period of fame in western Africa, particularly in francophone countries, in the 1980s. In college, he was introduced by a dormmate to Jess Sah Bi, who became his musical collaborator. The two released the 1985 album Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, a sublime collection of acoustic folk music with shades of African pop and French chanson. It earned them a large following and their music even played on the BBC when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but financial problems with their backer halted their momentum.

“It was short-lived because the promoter — what we call ‘producer’ in Côte D’Ivoire — he had some problems with his bank, with his employer, so he didn’t have the means to continue what he started. That’s why we stopped,” Peter One says.

The album languished in relative obscurity in the United States until it was reissued in 2018, at which point Peter One had been working as a nurse and raising a family. It introduced his work to a whole new audience. Among those new fans was Jason Isbell, who had Peter One open one night of his 2022 Ryman Auditorium residency and then several shows of his 2023 tour.

“When you hear Peter One singing, it sounds like he’s singing from a place that is not commercialized,” Isbell says. “He’s singing something he really means. And one thing that strikes me about him onstage, and I’ve seen him quite a few times now, is that you can tell this man has performed many times for many people. He’s extremely comfortable; he’s in control of the room; he’s in control of the dynamics; and you feel like you’re seeing somebody who is a legendary singer.”

Come Back to Me builds on the promise of Our Garden Needs Its Flowers with folky, largely acoustic tunes that lean toward hope and positivity. The percussive “Cherie Vico” makes appeals for reconciliation in its call-and-response vocals; “Joue-Moi le Piano” has a smoky, jazzy quality; and the joyous “Bonne Annee” features the voice of his old singing partner Jess Sah Bi, who now lives in California. He also touches on the conflict in Côte D’Ivoire in “Kavudu,” singing in French, English, and Guro. “Nous sommes des freres, pourquoi ce faire le guerre?” he sings — “We are brothers, why make war?”

“The trouble started way before 2010,” he says. “The war was the highest point of the situation. After the war, it’s like the country’s divided. So I wrote that song to try to bring people together. ‘Kavudu’ means unite, let’s be one, let’s be together.”

Togetherness is a recurring theme for Peter One, one he says is part of his purpose in making music again.

“Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can be sensitive to what you hear,” he says. “And knowing somebody who is not from your culture, it’s somebody who’s not from your country, somebody who’s not speaking the same language as you, who’s doing something that you like, it brings you together.”

Peter One had his musical career on pause for three decades. Now, as a father of two adult children who’s retiring from his nursing job, he’s on a mission to make up for lost time. He’ll make his Grand Ole Opry debut on April 14.

“I feel lucky. I feel also really, really happy because it’s kind of a revival,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for me to get back to an unfinished job.”

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