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How Peter One developed a unique style that crisscrosses the ocean musically
Amna Nawaz: Next month will see the release of a new album by a Nashville artist called Peter One.
But to call him simply a Nashville artist doesn't tell you the half of it. And though he's known as Peter One, he is soon to embark on a most extraordinary second act playing at the Grand Ole Opry.
Special correspondent Tom Casciato has that story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Tom Casciato: Here at Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan, Nashville's Peter One and his band are making Nashville sound.
How Peter arrived at that sound, well, that's a story.
Peter One, Musician: I started loving country music before I came here. But I would say I didn't know that it was called country music.
Tom Casciato: The 67-year-old grew up in Ivory Coast, a French-speaking country in West Africa, where he says the radio exposed him as a kid to all kinds of great music from the region.
Peter One: G.G. Vikey from Benin, Eboa Lotin from Cameroon.
Tom Casciato: From France.
Peter One: Claude Francois, Mike Brant.
Tom Casciato: And from the U.S.
Peter One: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Michael Jackson, even Donny Osmond.
Tom Casciato: Later, the great Nashville singers grabbed him. Don Williams was a favorite.
With influences that varied, maybe it is no surprise that Peter One developed a unique style that crisscrosses the ocean musically, with vocals you might hear sung in his native tongue, Guro, on one song, English on another, French the next.
He got his start in college in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, where he met a musical partner, Jess Sah Bi. The duo became a sensation in West Africa with their 1985 release, "Our Garden Needs Its Flowers." But political turmoil plagued Ivory Coast. 1990 saw the beginning of pro-democracy protests that would eventually lead to a government crackdown and arrests of the opposition.
That was the year, Peter says, when he founded the country's first musicians union.
Peter One: I was calling people, explaining what the copyright means, how we can fight for our own right if we are united. And that thing was good for musicians, but it brought me a lot of trouble on the side, because a lot of people were taking advantage of the chaos. So, I became a target.
Tom Casciato: A move to the States followed, where he did not make it as a musician, but after a job as a security guard and study at colleges first in Delaware and then New Jersey, he eventually got a job in Music City, not on Music Row as a performer, but in a hospital as a nurse.
When you were in Nashville and you were working as a nurse, rather than a musician, did you ever feel like "I have failed"?
Peter One: No. When I got this opportunity to be in Nashville, I said, wow, God has sent me here for a reason. He has a plan for me. Let's do it.
Tom Casciato: He never stopped playing and writing songs. And when a researcher came upon that 1980s album and reissued it on a label called Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2018, it was discovered by the likes of Pitchfork, which called it joyful vision of a world without borders.
And now, after 20 years of nursing, Peter One is finally releasing his first solo album, "Come Back to Me," his second crack at stardom, this time Nashville-style. One of its tunes is "Cherie Vico." It has a traditional country theme. The singer longs for the return of a lover. But when you learn what the words mean in English, they are not exactly Nashville.
The song is saying, I don't want to separate you from your brother. I don't want to separate you from your father.
Peter One: In my culture, when you, a man or woman, you are with someone, it is not just a person. You are with the whole family, because a family is not just father, mother and children. So, the union of two people is actually the union of a group of people.
Tom Casciato: So that's you marrying country music themes to your own themes.
Peter One: To my own culture.
Tom Casciato: Maybe that is why you sound like you and not like somebody else.
Peter One: Right.
Tom Casciato: Peter recently opened on a tour with popular singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, including this show at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium.
But, in many ways, his life is no different now than it has been for decades. For one thing, he is always writing songs.
Peter One: When I'm doing something that I don't have my guitar nearby, so I go ahead and record it on my cell phone first.
Tom Casciato: Because you do not want to lose...
Peter One: Exactly, because the inspiration comes. And if you don't catch it, you forget it, and it never comes back.
Peter One: I was driving.
Tom Casciato: Another way things have not changed, he has still got his day job.
Peter One: Yes, I am still nursing, because you can work on your own schedule. That can leave me time to go to do what -- my passion. And nursing is one of the rare jobs that can allow you to do that.
Tom Casciato: Part-time nursing, guitar picking, country singing with a West African lilt that is Nashville, Peter One-style.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Tom Casciato in New York City.