Lionel Manga explores the place of music in the social and cultural space of ‘this here country’ – a world of ambient, chronic poverty and the land of Manu Dibango.
Night has taken over from day where the Wouri river makes its way out to sea. Thick miasma travels the streets, stinking in the heat. The city’s going beery-eyed: joy and bitters, if you can believe it. It’s back to normal – sort of – but February lingers on the col- lective mind: Douala’s latest crisis. From the first wave of complaint, to the arrival of men-in-arms deployed against unarmed civilians and the president’s televised hoo- hah (the country is in thrall to witches, he cried), there’s more than enough to discuss over fish and plantains at Sero, the place you go these days if you crave such things and for a view of the whackiest building around, a ‘palace’ allegedly (good god…) erected by an esoterica-obsessed Egyptolo- gist named Dika Akwa nya Bona Mbella.
Everybody’s got anecdotes. I’ve got one too and I’m not about to forget the look of it: a bag of rice, a six-pack of cotton oil and the grisly remains of a pair caught stealing a pittance of goods behind the bus station at Sodiko, burned alive by their ‘peers’. Collateral damage in a world of ambient, chronic poverty. Mind you, it don’t take a crisis; in times of ‘peace’, people get lynched for much less around here. Seconds after we sit down, a CD hawker comes by. My friend Dominique, once a hacker but no more and always a music lover, buys a pirated copy of Richard Bona’s latest opus, then turns to me and says: “Say, Lionel, whycome Kamerun be bass central?”
It’s one thing to feel proud that Cameroon is home to the world’s best bass players and another entirely to answer the ex-hacker’s question intelligently. In an attempt at the latter, a general overview proves useful – a broad statement about the place of music in the social and cultural space of this here country, followed by an inquiry into economies of perfection on a sliding scale, local initiation and planet-wide travels, leading into the emergence of a whole family of bass players hailing from the land of Manu Dibango.
Degrees of freedom…
Who, aside from a few memory buffs, cares about Cameroon, this odd little country that tourist brochures identify as “Africa in miniature” and the magazine Jeune Afrique dubs a “slumbering lion”? Most people are unaware that a vicious dictatorship held sway here for more than a quarter century, under the leadership of an ex-postal employee called Ahmadou Ahidjo, who, on 18 February 1958, was catapulted to power by France’s General de Gaulle and his macabre minions, Pierre Mesmer and Jacques Foccart. From that day forward, and for some 30 years, the country was as if in a pit. A grave-like silence descended upon the land. All but the most flowery and innocent words were forbidden, lest the regime take offense. Nothing, no hell visited on the people, no matter how violent – nothing save God, and even then – mattered, so long as the Man and his backers remained in power. Jean Fochivé, head of Ahidjo’s secret service, saw to it that this was so.
In this landscape deadened by fear, neither literature nor film flourished. Music, however, managed to maintain a degree of freedom. Possibly this was a function of its deep roots – because it reached way back in time. But for a brief moment and short of complete destruction – amputation, say, such as was visited on the great Victor Jara by the Chilean army – it’s virtually impossible to silence music. So, from the moment of independence forward, there was music here. Aided and abetted by radio waves, music rocked our childhoods. And, of course, festivities helped too: countless of events brought to life by the scansion of drums sounding from sunrise to sunset. Surely this shaped the destinies of some who became our greatest musicians. Surely … but that’s hardly enough. Examples – models – are needed as well in the making of such destinies.
There is nowhere in Cameroon where you can study music the way you would mathematics or biology. So where did this armada of musicians come from – Guy Nsangué, André Manga, Armand Sabbal Lecco – bassmen all – whose talents are called for across the world? No rabbit- out-of-a-hat trick this: these guys are all 100 per cent home-grown. Despite the absence of university-level training, the country counts (or in any event counted) many incubators. One was Collège Vogt, a school run by Canadian men of the cloth in Yaounde. In the 1960s and 1970s, music was a compulsory subject matter there and the school boasted a prize-winning orchestra. The name Vicky Edimo might not mean much to people now, but back in the day he cut quite a figure. Trained at Vogt, he followed with glorious energy in the steps of still another Kamer, Jean Dikoto Mandengue, ex-bassman for Osibisa, Teddy Osei’s kickass afro-rock machine.
For quite a while, the scene was this: Douala and Yaounde nights peppered with cabarets, where self-taught musicians played the latest hits pretty much by sounding them out – on spec. It was open mic season, a place and a time to try out your goods in front of an audience otherwise occupied slurping suds and seeking sex. Le Philanthrope in Yaounde and Mermoz Bar in Douala were just two of many: stages pumping with music all night long. It was groovy, knowing you could get up and play, borrow an instrument and just go for it while the headliner took a break. For most of the bass players, as they were coming of age, these stages were a must-do, an initiation into the world that would one day become theirs.
Needless to say, the headliner acts moving in and through this cabaret scene, making it and failing to break out – depending on the changing moods of the owners and the public – welcomed up-and- coming youngsters looking for places to experiment and learn. Forty years ago over at Le Philanthrope, there was the Black Tulips, headed up by Mekongo Jean, a.k.a President; at Mermoz Bar, Nkotti François’ Black Styls were all the rage and at Domino, just down the street, Ekambi Brillant’s Cracks were in the house. Few of these crews made it. Most of their musicians ended up waiting out the month in desperately boring, menial white collar jobs; others tried over and over again, moving from one crappy recording studio to another, waiting in vain for the muse of success to appear.
Still, in a society cramped by surveillance, those who had let music in found liberation from oppression and recognition in an otherwise deadened public sphere. They managed what, in the final analysis, all art aspires to do: cloak the spirit in poetry and so to free it from the depersonalised invisibility that Ralph Ellison tells of so well, to cry out individuality where the white noise of pallid background sound threatens to drown out selfhood.