In the face of tremendous adversity

Local musician Yawo Attivor and his band mix styles to build a better world

Keri Carlson

.Though music from Jamaica, Africa, the Caribbean, India and the Middle East differs greatly, it’s all lumped together under the ambiguous “world music” genre. For consumers, “world” is meant to imply that the music is not from the U.S. pop or European classical traditions.

Maybe the group Yawo can change this useless definition. The local band encompasses a truly global approach to world beat – with members from Senegal, Brazil, France and the United States.

The band’s leader, singer and bassist, Yawo Attivor, (from whom the group gets its name) comes from the West African nation of Togo. And while Attivor’s African roots jump out in the group’s sound, he incorporates the many heritages and musical backgrounds of his band mates. Yawo’s newly released second album, “Take Out the Fences,” incorporates everything from traditional, central African styles, reggae, rhythm and blues, funk, jazz, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean and even a bit of hip-hop.

This idea of integration is a key theme to “Take Out the Fences.” “I like the title, because that’s my vision of how I see the world. I grew up in a multicultural society. It’s the idea of opening our minds to different influences, to different cultures, creating new things through what every culture brings to the plate; all different recipes. Music is not just one style,” Attivor said.

Laughing, he said, “I’m going to call my whole career ‘Taking Out the Fences.’ I’m on a musical mission.”

But the title’s meaning is not limited to tearing down musical boundaries. Much of “Taking Out the Fences” has to do with politics, particularly in Togo.

When Attivor was attending college in 1991, he delivered a speech during a student strike outlining the reasons for the demonstrations against the Togo government.

“We were asking the government to free the system, to allow political parties to exist, for freedom of speech,” Attivor said.

Mixed in the student crowd were secret police who arrested Attivor. Luckily, he was released, and a year later was in Iowa as a Camp Sunnyside counselor. Eventually, the U.S. government granted him political asylum.

Attivor joined the organization Up With People in 1993. The purpose of the group is to “travel around the world to gain understanding of people from different cultures,” he said. Attivor’s favorite moment with the group came when the 75-person choir, made up of people from all over the world, sang “Do You Hear the People Sing” from the musical “Les Miserables.”

“The song was talking about the people fighting for freedom, the common people,” Attivor said. “It was so big, so many people singing. It was very emotional for me.”

“Take Out the Fences” carries a similar rise-up-and-mount-the-barricades attitude. “Mi la Woe” begins with just Attivor’s deep and powerful cry that translates to, “We can do it.” As he rallies his troops, a reggae beat comes in stomping and Attivor yells, “Freedom freedom, we’ll be fighting for freedom.”

“It’s still a dictatorship,” Attivor said of his homeland. “There are political parties now allowed to be active, but they don’t have access to the media, the national TV and radio.”

Yawo’s music is meant for people to get up and take a stand against the government.

“The government we have now doesn’t care about the people,” Attivor said about the situation in Togo. “A dictator does everything he can to make people believe if he’s not in power, people will suffer.”

Yawo’s album is in rotation on Radio Africa No. 1, a station based in Gabon that can be heard throughout the entire African continent and in parts of Europe. But Attivor knows his overtly political songs will probably not be heard, at least in his own country.

So for now, Attivor will have to continue to fight the power from Minneapolis, his home since 1999. That’s not at all a bad thing for Attivor. “Minneapolis is on top. There are a lot of people from different countries. I go to stores, and I can find people who speak my native language. There are 1,000 people from Togo here, from a country of 4 million people,” he said.

Attivor moved to Minnesota with Yawo guitarist Matthew Hupton, who put out the album on his label Caveman Records. Their decision came after playing the now defunct Cedarfest summer concert. “There were a lot of people in the street enjoying world music and jazz,” Attivor said.

Even on the other side of the world, Attivor’s “musical mission” to take out the fences can be accomplished, one fence at a time.