Cameroon – Sounds of Makossa, Bikutsi and the Bagyeli

by Jacob on April 19, 2012

The first song my now 13-year old daughter ever heard was by a Cameroonian singer. Just a few minutes after her birth in our cottage in San Francisco we played her Henri Dikongue‘s “C’est La Vie”, which Henri had written for the birth of his child. I was working for the record label (Tinder Records) that released his album of the same title and fell in love with his music. Henri was performing at a small club in Mill Valley a month or two later and we brought our baby daughter to see him, but they wouldn’t let us in because she was underage…she wasn’t even drinking from a bottle, so we thought it pretty absurd but…as the song goes…c’est la vie.

I’ve worked with or gotten to meet many Cameroonian artists over the years – Kaïssa Doumbe, Richard Bona, Francis Jocky, Coco Mbassi, Gino Sitson, Manou Gallo, Kareyce Fotso, Muntu Valdo. The first time I ever road managed a tour was for Sally Nyolo, a former member of Zap Mama. Tinder even released a (mediocre) album from Petit Pays, who was Cameroon’s biggest makossa star back in 1997 when we released the album and he’s still the biggest star in the country today. Mention Petit Pays to a person in the streets of Cameroon and they will smile with delight that an American knows a musician that for them is a household name.

I had a slightly awkward meeting in Paris with legendary Cameroonian bassist and producer Aladji Touré, whose label the company I was working for was distributing. I remember sitting in his dusty office near the Sacre Coeur around 1996 and realizing for the first time that just because you are a well-known producer in my circles doesn’t mean you are rich and/or famous in the real world (the same thing happened when I met legendary Senegalese producer Ibrahim Sylla just a few blocks from there in a similarly dumpy office). I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Blick Bassy, Roland Tchakounte or Etienne Mbappe, but I like their music. When I think about it, there’s a lot of really nice Cameroonian music.

So I was looking forward to my brief visit to the country, although I knew I wasn’t going to have the time I wanted to dig into the music scene. Also, almost all of the Cameroonian musicians I know and like don’t live in the country any more. They have moved to Paris, Brussels or New York. The National Geographic Explorer ship  was stopping in the smaller port cities of Kribi and Limbe, not the capital Douala, and I wasn’t even sure if there would be any good record stores. So my expectations were low.

Somehow, I did manage to sneak off from one of the group tours and make it to a funky little record shop. After dropping the passengers off at a local Botanical Garden, I followed a tip given to me by the local tour operator and walked a mile or so down the road to a busy commercial intersection. From there, I followed my ears to the dingy little shop where loud bikutsi music was blasting from distorted, bass-heavy speakers.

This was a far cry from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs D’Elysee, but it was lined with dusty, faded CDs. Much of the selection was dated American music (more Jim Reeves!), Congolese classics and the occasional French pop singer from the 80s. But with a little digging, I found some Cameroonian artists I was familiar with or had been suggested, and the clerk/DJ suggested others. You can’t buy an original CD, you have to pick what you want and the clerk burns it for you. A burnt copy with indecipherable sharpie scrawl on it is about $2.00. After an hour or so or shaking my head at cheesy, over-synthesized modern makossa and bikutsi, the popular dance styles, I picked out about six CDs and told the guy I’d be back in two hours to pick up my copies.

I ran back to the Botanical Garden just in time to hop on the bus and drive the short distance over to the Limbe Wildlife Center which is sanctuary for a large number of gorillas, chimpanzees and other animals that were rescued from traffickers and bush meat hunters. Eventually, I ran back to the record store to pick up my goods and found the DJ sitting casually at the nearby cafe…he hadn’t even started burning my stuff yet and our bus was about to head out to a location far from the city. So after some heated discussion, he agreed to bring the CDs to me at the dock later in the afternoon. Man, the lengths I go to just to get a few CDs…!

It all worked out in the end, and even though much of what I bought didn’t sound nearly as good a few hours later, there were a few gems. The best of the bunch was the latest CD from Charlotte Dipanda. You can add her to the list of wonderful Cameroonian singer-songwriters:

In terms of bikutsi and makossa, I’ll be honest, it wears thin pretty fast. I did enjoy the latest from Epee & Koum, who use real horns and have more inventive arrangements:

My most interesting musical experience in Cameroon turned out to be something I never expected: a performance at a Bagyeli village near Limbe that we traveled an hour upriver on wobbly, leaky canoes to reach. The Bagyeli are one of the many Pygmy tribes to be found in Cameroon, Central African Republic and Congo. The term “Pygmy” is considered pejorative, but I don’t know of any other catch-all term other and depending on the country they are either known specifically by their ethnic group name or Baka, Bayaka or Bambenga. Anyway, I use it just because its the familiar term, but I won’t use it again, I will just refer to the community by the name of their ethnic group, the Bagyeli.

I never thought that on this trip I would have an opportunity to actually visit a Bagyeli village. I imagined them living hours into the deepest jungle, which I’m sure they also do, but this community was easily reachable and while they were definitely used to welcoming tourists it was 100% the real deal. While they didn’t bring attention to the nearby shack that served as their school, the villagers still live in a very traditional setting, using their skills as hunters and deep knowledge of the forest to survive.

Heading Upriver

Heading Upriver

Heading up the Limbe River

Heading up the Limbe River

Ethnomusicologists have long been fascinated by Bagyeli, Baka, Aka and Mbuti music, which is incredibly beautiful and complex. Their musical techniques of hocketing (a method whereby individuals sing or play notes that interlock with other singer/players to create a melody), polyphony and using their natural environment to make music (such as singing long with the sounds of the forest or splashing on river water as percussion) have inspired everyone from Zap Mama, Baka Beyond and Deep Forest to Philip Glass.

Traveling up the river silently by canoe was a mystical experience, although it did make me think of Apocalypse Now for some reason. We clambored up a steep, muddy bank and walked down a short path through the jungle to reach an open patch with about 5 or six grass huts in it and a group of about 30 Bagyeli men, women and children singing and dancing as we arrived. For the next thirty minutes they performed, using a long bamboo stick and drums for percussion, and demonstrating a singing game where people stand in a circle and take turns dancing in the middle. It was pretty otherwordly and very beautiful.

Bagyeli woman dancing

Bagyeli woman dancing

Bagyeli singing and drumming

Bagyeli singing and drumming

Bagyeli village

Bagyeli village

The Bagyeli and other such tribes have struggled to maintain their communities in a world where logging, mining and poaching has encroached on their traditional lands. Exploited and discriminated against, and threatened with the loss of their magical cultural expressions, beliefs and way of life, I felt like I was getting a small glimpse into a world that might not exist much longer.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: