Music Interviews
4:36 pm
Sat March 10, 2012

Zieti: Amid Brutal Conflict, A Musical Friendship Survives

Originally published on Sat March 10, 2012 6:12 pm

The musical group Zieti started when two American expats met two Ivorian musicians living in a seaside shantytown. They became fast friends, rehearsing on the beach and even recording a few tracks together. The tracks then went missing when Ivory Coast fell into a brutal civil war, scattering Zieti's core to the four winds. Then, after a decade apart, the players reconnected and set about re-recording their lost songs.

NPR's Guy Raz speaks with Zieti's two American members, guitarist Michael Shereikis and drummer Alex Owre, about the new album Zemelewa and the long path to its creation.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is a band called Zieti, and it's a band that was torn in half by war and geography and whose first recordings were actually lost forever. This album, Zieti's debut, was 13 years in the making. It's called "Zemelewa."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Zieti is made up of four musicians: two from the U.S. and two from Ivory Coast, the West African nation that's still recovering from the civil war that raged off and on for the past decade. The name Zieti refers to that struggle in Ivory Coast.

YEOUE NARCISSE: (Through translator) Zieti is the baton of courage. You have to be courageous in life to accomplish everything you want to do. When you have courage, you could get there.

RAZ: That's Yeoue Narcisse, the lead singer of Zieti. We reached him on the line in Abidjan. More from him in a moment. Right now, let's turn to the American part of the band. Guitarist Michael Shereikis and drummer Alex Owre were living in Ivory Coast back in the late 1990s before the violence began. And that's where they met their future band mates living in a shantytown.

MICHAEL SHEREIKIS: That's a little Katiere, a little neighborhood, which is just corrugated cardboard, you know, random wood, tin, you know, your typical developing world shanty.

ALEX OWRE: The shanty, actually, it's right between a railroad track and the beach. It's like, you know, this land that just wouldn't be used otherwise so it gets used. That's Africa for you.

RAZ: Tell me about your Ivorian band mates.

SHEREIKIS: Narcisse has been in Abidjan. He lives in a shanty near the airport. Meanwhile, Laurent's story is more dense. It's - he comes from a family that was pretty well-to-do in the western part of the country. His father was an important man out there. And so Laurent's coming to the city to live in a shanty and play music was frowned upon...

OWRE: Frowned upon.

SHEREIKIS: ...by his family, very much so. Alex and I would get in his car and drive out to their shanty and pick them up and grab some instruments, battery-powered amps, and go out and find a little camping site - le camping.

OWRE: Le camping.

SHEREIKIS: And we would set that stuff up with Alex's drum kit, and then we'd just start playing out there out by the beach.

RAZ: Was there a particular song that you started to perform with these guys or write with them that made you think that this was the real deal, this was coming together?

SHEREIKIS: The obvious choice is "Zion Do."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZION DO")

SHEREIKIS: We went out to the western part of the country where they're from and played a show in Gengolo. And they loved that song. Everyone danced, like an old 90-year-old man and little kids, and they got in a big circle and were dancing around. And when we finished the song, they forced us to play it again a second time.

OWRE: Forced us to play it again. And then the skies opened up...

SHEREIKIS: And then it rained.

OWRE: ...and it poured.

SHEREIKIS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZION DO")

RAZ: For those of us who do not speak Gere, can you tell us what the song is about?

OWRE: It's basically a musician's creed, you know, our faith in music and that faith lights the way to God and the eternal.

SHEREIKIS: Yeah. It's acknowledgment that, you know, as he says, creativity, spirituality, knowledge, inspiration, all those are divine. And it's through our faith in music that our path is shined towards the divine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZION DO")

RAZ: So you decide, let's cut a record together with these guys. How did you do it?

OWRE: Oh, it was easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEREIKIS: No, we were - there were many steps here.

OWRE: Yeah, many steps.

SHEREIKIS: We did a lot of demo recording with an eight-track cassette recorder that my brother brought me. And then we - right before we left in 1999, we recorded 10 songs in a studio in Abidjan. And that recording was lost. It was not backed up and destroyed.

RAZ: So you two begin this process in '97. Both of you left Ivory Coast in 1999, but those recordings were lost...

SHEREIKIS: Yes.

RAZ: ...within months. What happened to them?

SHEREIKIS: Well, studio soft was not apparently a solid record (unintelligible).

OWRE: Yeah, right.

SHEREIKIS: It's really soft. After we left the country, I met somebody here in the D.C. area who was building a studio back in Abidjan - and a foreign man - and we became friends, and I helped him out a little bit. And so then they recorded some tracks in his studio and sent them to me, and we started building them back up here in my studio. So that's been the process. It's been this back and forth across the ocean.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This long transatlantic collaboration came close to never happening. A few years after Michael and Alex returned to the U.S., Ivory Coast civil war broke out. Narcisse and Laurent went missing. Michael and Alex couldn't reach them. They had no idea if their band mates were alive or dead. Eventually, they were able to locate Narcisse, and he picks up the story from here.

NARCISSE: (Through translator) The two armies were approaching on either side of where I was staying. When they got there, they battled for three days. Where I took refuge, there was even more trouble. I was lucky just to get out of there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NARCISSE: (Through translator) My friend Laurent, when he was trying to get by, everything was burned down. He had to escape to a village - not even a village, into the bush. He couldn't stay where he had been living.

RAZ: Again, drummer Alex Owre.

OWRE: We were worried. We wouldn't speak with Narcisse in Abidjan. You know, so, we all, you know, Laurent (unintelligible) but he didn't really have any news from him either. So we were hoping for the best, fearing the worst. And luckily, it worked out. And we actually just spoke with him today on the phone, so it was great to, you know, to tell him that we were coming in and talking about the work that he did years ago.

SHEREIKIS: We hadn't spoken to him for five years until today. We called him. We finally got in touch with...

OWRE: Laurent, yeah...

SHEREIKIS: ...for Laurent today, and five years later we get to hear his voice. He's on his way to Abidjan to reach Yeoue Narcisse.

RAZ: Was there a point where you almost gave up on the idea of this band, of this record?

SHEREIKIS: The thing is that just always remembering those - the way they sounded when we're playing, you know, acoustic guitars and literally coconut husks. That sounds corny. That sounds Gilligan's Island, but that's what we started off playing - acoustic guitars and hitting on the back of coconuts and singing. And it was so beautiful. And that's what has kept this momentum going the whole time is just remembering that and trying to recapture it in some measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Any plans to bring Laurent and Narcisse to the United States and maybe tour with them?

SHEREIKIS: Absolutely love to.

OWRE: I think that road begins with us going back there to do another recording. We're taking one step at a time at this point, got this album out finally. And then we'll certainly be looking towards how we can get them over here. We'd love to.

SHEREIKIS: I think setting them up over there is a great step towards bringing them over here. And so that's part of the plan is making sure they have a stable situation that they can support themselves through music over there and so it's not just an adventure for them to come here. It's something solid and working towards the future.

RAZ: And as for Narcisse in Ivory Coast, he's been separated from his American band mates for 13 years, so the release of this record almost seems unreal.

NARCISSE: (Through translator) I had confidence in my brothers on the other side, Mike and Alex. But I also had lost a little bit of hope, frankly, because of everything that had happened in my country. I couldn't imagine a day when I would see my music played throughout the world. I thought I had lost something real. And with the courage of my brothers on the other side, God is in control.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NARCISSE: (Through translator) I'm very, very, very, very happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeoue Narcisse, Michael Shereikis and Alex Owre are three members of the band Zieti. The fourth member is Tiende Laurent. Zieti's debut album is called "Zemelewa." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.