How has Cameroon managed to keep its identity while integrating current trends?
We cannot talk about Cameroon without talking about Makossa, this musical style is the Mozart of Cameroonian sounds. However, several versions are opposed to the origins of this rhythm. Some say that it was in Equatorial Guinea that Makossa was born before being adopted by Cameroonian artists to establish itself as one of the main musical currents in Cameroon. Another version attributes to Nelly Eyoum the paternity of Makossa first known as Kossa.
In the 70s and 80s, Sam Fan Thomas exploited Makossa voices, transposing them into a style enhanced by Congolese guitars. The international consecration will leave from Paris (France) where it is installed, with the release, in 1984, of Makassi, in “African Typic Collection”, a very cadenced title, mixing Makossa and funk. Crowned with a gold disc. Sam Fan Thomas goes on to hit hits with the releases of Neng makassi (1985), Funky makassi and Si tcha (1986), Makassi again (1987), Emotion (1993) and No Satisfaction (1999).
Many other artists and groups have brought their colors to this movement: Penda Dalle, Manfred Ebanda, Georges Seba, Ngalle Jojo, Toto Guillaume, Moni Bilé, Bébé Manga, Elvis Kemayo, Ben Decca and his sisters Grace and Dora. Guy Lobé, Sword & Koum, Henry Njoh, Joly Priso, Franck Chaleur, Sergeo Polo, Ekambi Brillant, Pierre Didy Tchakounté, Franck Chaleur, Pierre De Moussy, Lapiro De Mbanga, Ndedi Dibango, and many others.
To the basic instrumentation, voices are added covering popular songs, all the modern orchestration marked by the rhythmic bass, drums, and brass instruments. Epée Mbende created one of the first groups of modern makossa; Los Calvinos. Francis Bebey later brings his touch (Idiba). Since the 1970s, the genre has had various contributions such as jazz and soul: the title “Soul makossa” by Manu Dibango popularized it internationally in 1973.
The Soul Makossa song is a worldwide hit, covered by a host of American artists: Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Rihanna, JAY-Z… A hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973, a precursor to the Disco era in the USA. For nearly a decade, the Makossa has been in the firmament. Years later, Makossa, itself born of syncretism, will inspire other music, in distant latitudes (notably the Zouk of the Kassav). The genre dominated African music until the mid-1980s. This is how Makossa lost its alleged Guinean identity and continues to this day to be known as the musical style Par Excellence in Cameroon.
At this same period, in the 80s, Cameroon also shines thanks to Bikutsi. This is a traditional rhythm practiced by Betis women in Cameroon. This register was an outlet for these women, they spoke of their disappointment, sorrows and frustrations at the end of the day around a fire. Les Têtes Brûlées are legendary. Their music takes up ancestral bikutsi rhythms but brought up to date in a much more electric style thanks in particular to the guitarist Zanzibar. With their eccentric costumes, their half-shaved heads and the white paint on their bodies, they quickly become the most famous bikutsi group in Cameroon and in the world. Still, many critics and fans of the genre find it hard to accept their pop and electric genre.
However, in the early 90s, the industry ran out of steam. It experienced disenchantment on a planetary scale. Cameroonian music hit a slump, despite a few local hits here and there. At the dawn of the 2010s, with mixtapes like the Mboatapes, the world discovered artists such as Locko, Magasco, Salatiel, Reniss, JOVI, Stanley Enow, Daphne and many others. Each in their discography knew how to mix tradition and modernity in order to impose itself against the Afro beat of English-speaking Africa.
These sounds were cradled by Cameroonian rhythms from Makossa to Assiko (via Bikutsi) whilst growing up in a world dominated by Hip Hop, RnB and Pop. The new generation has been able to combine urban music and the classics of Cameroonian music. Thus, the 2010 decade was marked by the arrival of urban music. Indeed, coming from Western countries, urban artists have been able to adapt and fuse the style into Afro-pop, Afro-trap, soul or hip hop.
Cameroonian music this time did not appropriate a style and then blend in with the masses, but it was able to combine its cultural richness with the trend to compete with the music of English speaking Africa and the World.
We were then witnessing a real cultural duel in Africa which was long dominated by Ivorian and Congolese music. Central Africa was finally making a place for itself in the sun after a noticeable absence in the 90s.
Independent labels are multiplying locally such as Empire company led by major Franco Cameroonian rapper Pit Baccardi, Alpha beta Records by Salatiel, Big dreams Entertainment by Gervais Ngongang, New Bell Music and more. These labels respectively launched icons of Cameroonian music such as X Maleya, Salatiel, Mr Leo, Locko, Reniss.
In Cameroon, for example, we see the rise of Mbolé, which has strong local roots but is encountering commercial difficulties. Despite its adoption by the indomitable lions of Cameroon during Cup Of Nations 2021, the musical style is struggling to be exported. The artists who have chosen to adopt this genre, are very little courted by the labels, to wonder if the Cameroonian identity in music pleases and works only when it is produced by local labels. When we look at the history of music on a global scale, the transition from one musical style to another has always caused a loss of breath but has never ended an industry. Finding the recipe for success has to be developed, such is the burden of the new generation. Will the new artists be up to the challenge?
One thing is certain, Cameroonian music has always been able to reinvent itself, to shine on the world stage. Even if it is the end of a cycle, new talents are emerging and making Cameroon shine.
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