Saturday, March 30, 2013


There are many ethnic groups in Cameroon, and subsequently many different styles of music that comes out of this area. One of the most well-known styles is makossa. (I first heard this term from the Brazilian singers Charlie Brown Jr and Marcelo D2 who did a song together called “Samba Makossa” – great song, by the way.) It’s more of an urban style that takes its influences from several other pan-Africa genres, such as soukous from Congo, jazz, Latin, ambasse bey (faster paced folk music from Cameroon), and the highlife style from Ghana. Probably the best known makossa performer is Manu Dibanga with his song “Soul Makossa” which rose to international fame back in 1972.

Different areas of Cameroon led to the development of different styles.  Pirogue sailors (those who use a type of traditional fishing boat) around the Douala area are famous for a type of singing called ngoso, which is now often accompanied by various percussion instruments. The Beti peoples around Youndé and points south are known for a style called bikutsi.  Bikutsi utilizes a quick 6/8 time signature and is a sister style to that of the makossa. It’s normally performed at get-togethers such as weddings and funerals. In the 1970s, a few singers added brass instruments to the mix, and it made its way to European audiences for the first time.  The 1980s brought more changes in instrumentation to bikutsi music, and the popularity of television shows and movies helped promote musicians and their music.

Today, there are a lot of grey areas between Congolese soukous, makossa, and bikutsi as the genres add different instruments and blend the styles. Some of the more popular musicians are Petit Pays, Henri Dikongué, and Pasto. The video below is a Henri Dikongué song called "C'est la Vie," and I really like it. 

Percussion instruments still reign as the basis for instrumental music. It stands not only as accompaniment but can also act as the melody as well. The balafon, a curved wooden percussion instrument similar to a marimba is used throughout West Africa. Another instrument you’ll find among Cameroonian traditional music is the mvet. It’s a type of double-sided harp which uses an amplifier made from a calabash (a type of gourd). The mvet is used in certain ceremonies by Beti storytellers and is considered such an important part of these ceremonies (and culture) that it’s thought the mvet was given by God as a means of educating the people. This idea of linking music to spirituality and a “higher level of consciousness” is one that touches almost all religions and spiritual paths throughout the world. (And still, some want to take away music education…)

I actually found several Cameroonian artists on Spotify.  I listened to the album “Traveler” by Vincent Nguini. It’s a great album if you like acoustic guitar with jazz and Latin jazz influences woven into traditional African style, instrumentation, and rhythms. Another album I listened to most of is “C’est la Vie” by Henri Dikongué. Again, it’s much of the same style as Vincent Nguini. I sampled a couple makossa albums from Petit Pays, Jean Pierre Essome, and Moni Bile, all of whom reminded me of various Caribbean music styles but with a definite African rhythm to it. (I almost felt like I needed some good rum. Or something.) I did find some songs by Uta Bella, whose music I really liked. Her music has more of a modern feel to her music, with some traditional and unexpected harmonies. Another female singer I came across is Anne Marie Nzié. Both remind me a little of the music of Angelique Kidjo from Benin. This video is of Paul Simon, whom Vincent Nguini has performed with for many years. 

Dance often takes the same name as the different music genres it accompanies. Cameroon has many different ethnic groups and over 200 different kinds of dances. These dances, for the most part, are often divided into categories based on a variety of demographic factors: age, occupation, social status, sex, among others. Many of these dancers perform for tourists and other social events and ceremonies these days still. When the early European Christians started moving into the area to colonize it, they were so offended by their dances, they not only discouraged it, but in some cases, outlawed it. As a result, several dances died out. After independence, the government did its best at trying to preserve their cultural dances.  Modern popular dance – dances that take place in bars and clubs and similar places – throw out the demographics.  It’s for everyone, mixed company and all. These styles of dances – like makossa, bikutsi, highlife, hip-hop – have also been used as a means of protest and socio-political statements. 

Up next: the food!

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