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Decades After Success, Peter One Is Back In The Garden Of Song

Angelina Castillo

What’s it like to achieve musical success and then to be disrupted and displaced by events far beyond your control? What’s it like to have to put your passion aside and adopt an entirely new life in a new country, waiting for a chance to reconnect with your purpose and your talent? And then how does it feel to have that fire rekindled late in life?

Those questions spring from the story of Peter One, a 67-year-old West African who lives in Nashville. In the 1980s, he achieved renown in his native Ivory Coast and beyond doing something almost unheard of there - writing and singing original folk and country music. As part of a duo with fellow guitarist and singer Jess Sah Bi, Peter One sang out against South African apartheid and on behalf of justice and peace to large crowds around West Africa and on television.

Forced to leave the Ivory Coast to avoid political violence, those days seemed behind him, but through a remarkable series of events, Peter One is not only back making music; he’s quite ubiquitous this year. He played the Grand Ole Opry this spring and the Newport Folk Festival in July. He’ll showcase at AmericanaFest and play the Pilgrimage Festival here in Nashville this September. How this all happened is the heart of Episode 252 of The String.

As he grew up and became fascinated with music in Côte d'Ivoire, “I was, I would say, a free atom,” One says with a laugh. “My fellow musicians were playing mostly African music, especially Congolese music, and also the classics from western countries, from the Beatles, from Jimi Hendrix, pop music. But besides that I think I was probably the only one who was thinking of creating his own music.”

He had a friend who’d studied in Europe and who came back home with all kinds of hard-to-get music, and Peter became fascinated with the songwriting of Simon and Garfunkel and the graceful country of Don Williams. But his plans were to become a teacher and to play music for fun. “But when I meet with friends, we don't play what I write, because they like to play, you know, what they hear. Until I met Jess Sah Bi. It’s when I met Jess Sah Bi that I started bringing my own music out.”

That happened at college when somebody put them together as writers of original songs. They formed a duo and had surprise success by way of a national television station that propelled them to large venues and to recording the album Our Garden Needs Its Flowers in 1985.

Peter emigrated to the US in 1995 and set up a new life in Delaware, but his dreams of creating a music production company and writing more songs had to go on hold. A series of jobs led him into nursing and a career in Nashville. He raised a family and became a US citizen in 2008. But it wasn’t until 2018 that his musical past became part of his musical present. Awesome Tapes From Africa - a boutique record label that reissues obscure recordings from that continent - re-released Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, leading to reviews in some major magazines and renewed interest. The duo reunited briefly from homes on opposite coasts. But more vitally it led Peter One back to playing and composing through collaborations in Nashville and ultimately to the recording of his new 10-song collection Come Back To Me on Verve Forecast.

From its opening love song “Cherie Vico” it’s like nothing else in contemporary roots music, a fresh point of view on groove, harmony, texture and spirit. Produced with Memphis maven Matt Ross-Spang, builds a subtle sound world all its own in support of One’s kind and translucent voice. Peter tells me that now that he’s back in the music game, there’s more songs written and more recording yet to come.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>