The Nashville Man Who Used To Be A Country Star — In West Africa | Nashville Public Radio

The Nashville Man Who Used To Be A Country Star — In West Africa

May 15, 2019

Sometimes, when Pierre Tra works the night shift at a nursing home in southeast Nashville, he’ll step off into a corner and record himself singing into his cell phone, to store it for later.

That’s how he captures ideas. Peter, as he calls himself now, is a quiet 63-year-old and a musician in his free time. That in itself is not unusual in Nashville, but few have lived the kind of trajectory that Peter has.

Thirty-three years ago and more than 5,000 miles away, Peter was a country star — in the Ivory Coast in West Africa.

His stage name was “Peter One.”  In the '80s, Peter and his bandmate Jess Sah Bi played on TV and radio in their region, blending American country with folk and African harmonies to make songs that were both personal and political. They even played to soccer-stadium crowds in the cities of Abidjan and Bouaké, as well as in neighboring countries, such as Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Liberia.  

Once Peter emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-'90s, he had to put his musical pursuits on the backburner. He began working as a full-time nurse to support himself and his family. Music was no longer be the sole focus of his day-to-day life.

And that’s how things stayed for many years.

But recently, Peter got an email from a person he had never met. And that was the email changed everything.

Pierre Tra lives in Southeast Nashville. He moved to the city for a nursing job and found that he didn't quite fit into the existing country scene.
Credit Stephen Jerkins / WPLN

Country Music In The Ivory Coast

Peter grew up in the south of the Ivory Coast in a small town called Bonoua. (His stage name, he said, was coined by an English teacher who needed to differentiate him from the other Peter in the class.) In Bonoua, he recalled, there was only one station on the radio. But it played all kinds of music, including American country and folk.

And Peter just ate it up. He still remembers feeling transfixed upon hearing Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” for the first time.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I don’t understand the lyrics. I don’t know how to play that. But it really touches my soul.”

When Peter went off to university in Abidjan, the capital, he met his future bandmate, Jess. They spoke the same tribal language, Gouro, and bonded over a shared love of American country players such as Don Williams — who also had a huge following in the Ivory Coast.

Peter and Jess started writing tunes and playing gigs together. In 1985, they recorded and released their debut album, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers. The music wasn’t traditional, pure country, but Ivorian journalists at the time started labeling them “country,” so they just ran with it. And right away, their so-called “country” album became a smash hit in Ivory Coast — and led to big shows in multiple countries.

"It was everywhere on the radio, everywhere," he said. "And when you go to Abidjan, in all the clubs, you will hear that."

Peter said he loved connecting to crowds at those concerts, but at his core, he’s a shy person. He didn’t like the attention and scrutiny off-stage. Plus, he looked around at other Ivorian musicians, noticed their vices and excesses, and wanted to avoid such a fate.

So Peter then set his sights on producing. He decided to go to the U.S. to get equipment and expertise. In 1995, he moved to New York, and then to Delaware.

But then, he got stuck.

Pierre Tra hopes to regain some of his success as "Peter One" with the re-release of his previous album.
Credit Stephen Jerkins / WPLN

Off To America

Living in the U.S., he found out, wasn’t cheap. But he didn’t want to give up and go home, because the political situation in Ivory Coast was unraveling. So to make ends meet, he took a series of nursing jobs. His family came from Africa to join him. He became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

In 2014, he accepted a nursing job in Nashville, then tried connecting with local musicians. It wasn’t easy. For one thing, he said, they didn’t seem to share his expansive definition of country music and tended to label him “worldbeat.” For another, he doesn’t look like a typical country player.

"They laugh at me," he said. "Because it's weird! 'How can an African do country music? What is he talking about?'

"And I do understand their reaction. Because if you, a white person, you come to me and say, 'Yeah, I’m a musician, I do high-life or ziglibiti,' which is a beat of my country, I would look at you like, 'You're a freak, man.' "

So for several years, Peter just played at home, or with whomever he could, here and there. Until one day, he got that fateful email.

The sender was a man named Brian Shimkovitz, who had studied ethnomusicology in college and had gone to West Africa in the early 2000s as a Fulbright Scholar. While he was there, he collected so many obscure tapes by local musicians that he launched a record label called Awesome Tapes from Africa to share them with the wider world. And one tape he stumbled across as part of this project was Peter and Jess’s album.

“Even though I knew from living in Ghana and traveling around West Africa that country music had been and has been popular among various people there,” said Shimkovitz, “I was really surprised when I heard local-language, local-themed country music.”

Shimkovitz said that he first tracked down Jess, who had moved to San Francisco, through Facebook. Then he found Peter. The three of them decided to reissue the album through the Awesome Tapes label.

It got glowing reviews from outlets such as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, which called the record as “a folk masterpiece” and “a work of pure joy.” Jesse Montgomery, a PhD student in English at Vanderbilt University, described the album for the website Popula as a “warm sound, more Laurel Canyon than honky tonk, that manages to take classic country material like the train beat or the lonesome whine of a steel guitar and bend them toward some rarely glimpsed sonic optimism present in the music.”

In August 2017, Peter and Jess launched a concert tour that took them from Los Angeles to New York, Chicago, Indiana, Baltimore, to Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

This year, the duo is playing festivals: In April, they performed at Marfa Myths in Texas, and later this year, they’re scheduled to play at POP Montreal in Canada.

While these shows and the album reissue have provided Peter with a little extra income, they’ve also given him a spiritual boost: the hope that eventually, he’ll be able to make a living just off music again.

And all those ideas he’s been saving in his cell phone? Those are turning into songs.

One that he and Jess might put on their next album is called "Alesso," a word in his native language of gouro. 

"It means 'doors opened,' " Peter said. "May the door open."

Nicholas Phillips is a journalist based in St. Louis. This story was produced as part of the Transom Travelling Workshop.