Gabonese folk music generally includes the folk traditions of the four main Bantu tribes that are in Gabon: the Fang, the Punu, the Nzebi, and the Obamba. They are mostly known for their music accompanying Bwiti religious ceremonies, especially that of the Fang and the Mitsogho. These ceremonies often use the powerful psychedelic tree bark of the iboga. This substance is illegal in several countries and is considered a Schedule I drug in the US (drugs that are basically considered illegal with no known medicinal value, although cannabis is on there, so…); in fact, it’s illegal to export it out of Gabon in an effort to preserve the sacred cultural ties to the plant. During these ceremonies, drums and the ngombi harp is played, heightening the effects of the iboga.
One instrument prevalent to traditional Gabonese music is the obala. (I had a lot of trouble finding any information on the obala; I kept getting hits for the city in Cameroun called Obala and the 1980s Croatian rock band called Daleka Obala. If you have any information on this instrument, please let me know about it!) The ngombi is a type of arched harp that is also used in traditional music, as well as the balafon (like a large xylophone with gourds used as resonators). Each instrument is designated to a specific rite or ritual within the Bwiti religion. This video is of Bwiti harp music used during an initiation.
Dance traditions in Gabon were mostly used in religious ceremonies. Different dances are used for different purposes and events (especially those that are tied to the Bwiti traditions), such as births, funerals, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Today, all kinds of dances –both traditional and pan-African as well as styles from Europe and the US– are taught and performed in clubs and dance troupes. The video below isn't of the best quality, but you can tell that the dance in this women's initiation ceremony uses rattles tied to the ankles of the women as they make quick movements with their hips and feet.
During the 1980s, the African music radio station in Libreville, Africa No. 1, along with the first recording studio in Gabon, Studio Mademba, became the hot spot for up-and-coming musicians to record. Musicians across Africa and the Caribbean flocked to Libreville just to record here. However, during the 1990s, its fame dwindled, and cities like Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and Johannesburg, South Africa took its place as recording capitals.
Although rock, hip-hop, and reggae from the US, the UK, the Caribbean, and other African countries remain popular, there are several musicians who got their starts in Gabon. One of the most famous musicians in Gabon is Pierre Akendengué. He had traveled to France for treatment of an eye disease that would leave him blind. It was in France where his classical guitar studies would transfer to his music. He released several albums and only returned to Gabon when he challenged the government for censoring his music. Their response was to make him a government advisor. I listened to his album Destinée and Africa Obota/Nandipo. Both are really relaxing to listen to. I listened to it for hours.
Artists such as Hilarion Nguema, and Patience Dabany, and Oliver N’Goma have a very typical pan-African sound to their music. It tends to have a prominent percussion (albeit, some of it is synthesized), horn lines, and smooth melodic vocal lines. I’ve noticed that in the vast majority of African music I’ve heard, the vocal lines generally tend to stay within the primary key of the song.
I was immediately drawn to the voice of Annie Flore Batchiellilys on her album Mon Point Zérooo. Her alto voice intertwines with the choral harmonies, accompanied by strings and acoustic guitars. One song uses J. S. Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” as the background music. (That was the first piece I ever played in a recital.) The sultry sound of jazz guitar is what drives me to keep listening. The YouTube description on this video says she's from the DRC, although I thought I found her name on a list of Gabonese artists. Regardless, I still love her music, and I'm sure her music is played in Gabon.
Up next: the food