Jazz, rivalry and revolution: Burkina Faso recalls spirit of Sankara

As Burkinabés celebrate the end of the military coup, musicians remember an old friendship that still shapes the country’s fate

When residents of Ouagadougou took to the streets last week to protest against a military coup, there was one name on their lips. Wearing T-shirts bearing the image of the legendary former Burkina Faso leader, Thomas Sankara, they chanted the slogan of his government: “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!” (“Homeland or death, we will overcome!”).

It proved prophetic. A few days later, leaders of the coup, loyal to former president Blaise Compaoré,were forced to back down and the country’s interim leadership was restored.

The ensuing celebrations mimicked those in Ouagadougou a year earlier when another takeover – this one sparked by a popular citizens’ uprising – had deposed Compaoré, who had been in power since 1987 when he led a coup that claimed Sankara’s life.

The turmoil of the past weeks, with political power swinging one way and then another, illustrates all too clearly how the legacy of the two men – one dead, one in exile – continues to shape the country’s fortunes.

Abdoulaye Cisse, 67, and his fellow musicians knew them both. They tell an extraordinary tale of two former friends whose falling out was to have devastating consequences for the country.

“We were a group of friends and there was a good camaraderie between us. We used to call Sankara ‘comrade president’, but Compaoré was just ‘Blaise’,” says Cisse, who enjoyed fame in the 70s with his jazz band Les Vautours (The Vultures).

The face of Thomas Sankara on a demonstrator’s T-shirt during a recent protest against the military coup on 18 September.
The face of Thomas Sankara on a demonstrator’s T-shirt during a recent protest against the military coup on 18 September. Photograph: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Sankara first met Compaoré in the early 70s, during the war with Mali. They became inseparable.

Dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara”, Sankara was an army man and a Marxist revolutionary who became president in 1983 after a people’s uprising. He launched an ambitious social and economic reform programme and became an icon of pan-Africanism with his anti-imperialist rhetoric.

What many people don’t know is that Sankara was also a fine jazz guitarist who founded several bands. Even less known is the fact that he and Compaoré played together in one of them, Tout-à-Coup Jazz.

“[Thomas] Sankara was a skilled jazz musician, but Compaoré just sang,” says Cisse. “There were more rehearsals than concerts but every performance was magical. When in government, Sankara knew that music was a tool for cultural development, and could effectively be used to promote the revolution.”

In 1978, Sankara – then lieutenant in a training camp in the city of Po – made Compaoré his deputy commander. In this southern Burkinabe town, a new group had emerged to entertain the troops: Missile Band of Po.

Thomas Sankara playing guitar
Thomas Sankara playing guitar. Photograph: Michel Bossofa

“Compaoré was more serious than Sankara,” says François Tapsoba, a former band member. “Sankara never worried about money. He was an incorruptible leader,” he adds, strumming out chords on a battered-looking guitar that was given to him by Compaoré nearly 30 years ago.

When Sankara came to power, the legend goes, he sold the government’s fleet of luxury cars and replaced them with more affordable Renault 5s.

“He was the special one,” says Pascal Ouédraogo Kayouré, who says he taught Sankara how to play the guitar as a child. “He will always be part of our history. His real passion was music. He was a very disciplined student.”

In 1987, Compaoré launched a coup against his former comrade, in which Sankara was murdered. Compaoré claimed the presidency, and stayed in power for 27 years.

“These were very hard times for people in Burkina Faso,” says Roger Bihoun, a former member of the Missile Band. “We lived with very little. Our artistic careers were kidnapped after the coup of 1987. We cannot return to those years.”

Blaise Compaoré
Blaise Compaoré before being forced to step down as Burkina Faso president. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Last October, the festering dissatisfaction spilled over when Compaoré tried to extend his presidential term. Demonstrators took to the streets, chanting “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!” Compaoré was forced into exile and a transitional government installed with Michel Kafando, former foreign minister and ambassador to the UN, as interim president.

Finally, musicians such as Cisse, Bihoun and Kayouré began to hope for their country. “In his first speech after being elected, Kafando mentioned Sankara. It was the right time to appeal for justice,” says Kayouré.

Then, three weeks before scheduled elections on 11 October, Kafando and the prime minister Yacouba Isaac Zida were arrested by members of the presidential guard loyal to ousted Compaoré. But again the country resisted, and after a week of demonstrations and the involvement of regional leaders, the coup leaders were overthrown.

Today, the musicians recall the words of the Burkinabé national anthem, One Single Night, written in 1984 by then-president Sankara: “One single night has drawn together / The history of an entire people / And one single night has launched its triumphal march / Towards the horizon of good fortune.”

Cisse says they are finally able to look forward. “Twice in the last year we have expelled Compaoré’s regime. We have our heads above the water again. I have hope for the future.”

Eduardo Molano in Ouagadougou

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Thomas Sankara's spirit shines at Burkina Faso film festival
Fespaco, Africa’s largest film festival, breathed politics but suffered from a lack of funding in the fragile aftermath of the country’s revolution, reports Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Oris Aigbokhaevbolo in Ouagadougou

10, Mar, 2015 @5:00 AM

Article image
Burkina Faso's revolutionary hero Thomas Sankara to be exhumed
Nearly 30 years after he was assassinated, the family of ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’ have convinced the government to finally verify his remains

David Smith Africa correspondent

06, Mar, 2015 @4:47 PM

Article image
Tributes to Leila Alaoui, photographer killed in Burkina Faso terror attack
Colleagues, friends and followers line up to praise work of French-Moroccan photographer, who died after attack in Ouagadougou

Maeve Shearlaw

20, Jan, 2016 @12:02 PM

Article image
Why did Burkina Faso become al-Qaida's latest target?
Their latest attack in west Africa sends ominous message to French forces, the Burkinabé people and other terror groups, writes Daily Maverick

Simon Allison for the Daily Maverick

18, Jan, 2016 @1:18 PM

Article image
Burkina Faso's revolution 2.0
Thousands are protesting in the capital amid unconfirmed reports that the army is poised to step in. As events unfold, follow updates here

Basia Cummings

30, Oct, 2014 @1:44 PM

Article image
How the people of Burkina Faso foiled a military coup
With arrested leaders reinstated and elections back on track, analysts say negotiated deal is a victory for democracy

Simon Allison

25, Sep, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
After a year of turmoil, Burkina Faso heads for the polls
First free election in 30 years heavily influenced by legacies of former liberation comrades Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré

Simon Allison

28, Nov, 2015 @10:00 AM

Article image
'Alarming' Burkina Faso unrest threatens west African stability
Reach of extremist groups could spread to Ghana, Togo and Benin, says US military chief

Ruth Maclean in Ouagadougou

07, Mar, 2019 @1:26 PM

Article image
'Capital of African film': the Burkina Faso festival celebrating continent's movies
Fans, stars and film-makers travel to Ouagadougou for the 25th Fespaco, the biggest African film event in the world

Ruth Maclean in Ouagadougou

27, Feb, 2017 @2:47 PM

Article image
Burkina Faso tightens press freedom amid security crisis
Law defined ‘death sentence’ for media outlets criminalises demoralisation of armed forces

Ruth Maclean West Africa correspondent and Oumar Zombre in Ouagadougou

14, Jul, 2019 @3:07 PM