When the soldiers shot the lock off the door of Room 419 of the Golf Hotel on Dec. 24, Laurent Fologo was standing in front of the television, barefoot.
The general secretary of the Democratic Party, which had ruled Ivory Coast for 40 years, was caught without shoes but not without warning: Five years earlier, a journalist had suggested that Fologo--who like other Ivorian politicians watched a lot of foreign TV--might do well to bend an ear to the music favored by the soldiers who were now dragging him outside.
"I told him in 1994 that what the young people are saying in music reflects the popular discontent," said Joachim Beugre, political editor of the independent Le Jour newspaper. "But he didn't take it seriously."
The result was a military coup backed by a reggae beat. As mutinying soldiers arrested Fologo--whom they later released--and sent President Henri Konan Bedie scurrying overseas, other troops seized the state radio station and put back on the air the recordings of Ivorian musicians whose banned music had inspired them.
"They're the people who tell the truth," Sgt. Olivier Zadi declared of the musicians. "They say exactly what happens. It's because of them that we became conscious of what's going on and said, 'Enough is enough.' "
Sgt. Alaid Kouame nodded toward the station he was helping to guard. "We take their songs, we go to the radio station, and we play them," he said.
They played "Dictatorship," by Alpha Blondy and the Solar System, and "The Thieves of the Country (Kleptocracy)." They played Tiken Jah Fakoly singing "fight the powers that divide" and Serge Kassy's "Pay Your Taxes," aimed at members of the political elite who don't.
Kouame's favorite is "Tattletale," about courtiers currying favor with a ruler. After hearing it, a retired general named Robert Guei telephoned Kassy, who wrote it. Guei said he recognized his fate in that song, having been dismissed as army chief of staff after refusing the president's order to send troops to an election boycott demonstration in 1995. Kassy was so impressed, he wrote "My General."
Today, Guei is Ivory Coast's new leader, heading a transitional government he said will hold power only until free elections can be scheduled. And Kassy is greeted on the streets with "Hey, Sergeant!" a play on his first name, Serge, that also reflects the alliance of music and militance that has been the hallmark of reggae since it emerged from the slums of Jamaica.
"We feel that we are Bob Marley's children," said Kassy, 37. "Most Jamaican singers are going on about Africa, so we thought: If the Jamaicans are going on about Africa, what about us? Why can't we, being close to reality, bring more?' "
For some artists, the reality grew a bit close for comfort. Blondy was terrified by the soldiers shooting in Abidjan's streets. Hiding under the bed in one of the most conspicuous houses in town, he said, he refused to come out even when soldiers came knocking at the door. "My daughters said, 'Daddy, they want to shake your hand.' I said, 'I'm not going outside when there are guns.' "
Blondy and others trace the downfall of the ruling party to the early 1990s, when Ivory Coast joined the continent's post-Cold War transition from single-party rule to a multi-party system. The transition never quite came off here. Scores of parties sprang up, but Bedie always found a way to disqualify the most serious challenger.
But expectations had been raised, and the resulting outrage found vent in youth culture. Kassy decided on a career in "engaged music" in college, where opposition politics was beginning. His first album, released in 1990, was "I'm Proud." Banned on state radio, it became a staple at opposition rallies.
"In weak democracies, musicians are like journalists," said Blondy, 46. "They talk about things that some journalists wouldn't dare to because all the papers are owned by political parties. We are the voice of the voiceless."
As the '90s wore on, Bedie's government took the blame for a slumping economy and growing corruption, but the most corrosive issue was the government's promotion of "Ivory-ness," or ethnic division. The concept was aimed at dismissing the northern, largely Muslim, population, which produced the strongest political challenger, Alassane Ouattara.
Beugre, the political editor, recalled riding in a cab last year. The driver had just learned from a Tiken Jah cassette that northerners had been in Ivory Coast even before the Akan group that then formed the ruling elite. "So why are Akans saying we are the foreigners?" Beugre recalled the cabbie asking.
Beugre estimated that 50 percent of the energy driving the coup was supplied by musicians. "We were so popular that it was difficult for the police to arrest us," Kassy said. "But there were journalists who were always in jail. Different opposition figures were in jail."
After the coup, Kassy changed the name of his new album from "Cut But Not Bleeding" to "Liberty." And he says he feels Guei "can be trusted. But man will be man, and leadership power is a monster.
"All I can say is, we have started something," Kassy said. "Change has started. . . . Today, I'm with Guei, because I feel that Guei will put in place what the people want. But if in the long run people feel that he came just to be in power, then I will be the first one to fight against him."
CAPTION: Reggae star Serge Kassy, right, greets soldier who told him musicians inspired the coup.