As promised, this post comes as a follow-up to Post 1 chronicling my musical encounters in Cameroon in June of 2014. Part 2 features more musicians I met in Yaounde and also in Buea – the capital of the Southwest Region – nestled at the foothills of the breathtaking Mount Cameroon. It also peeks into the world’s premier ebony mill used to export guitar frets and piano keys around the world.
One artist that opened my eyes to the Anglophone world of Cameroonian music was Francis Ateh Bazore. He is a presenter and host for the national broadcast house CRTV (Cameroon Radio Television), and president of the Association of Cameroon English Speaking Musicians (ACEM). We first met in Yaounde for a live interview on Morning Safari (before the crack of dawn) at CRTV.
Two days later, I met Ateh again in Buea, some 160 miles northwest of Yaounde. The U.S. Embassy had organized a gathering of the local area ACEM members and, as president of the association, Ateh had also made the trip from Yaounde. He headed the meeting and expertly facilitated one-on-ones between each musician at the table and me. Most of them brought copies of their music for me to play on my radio show. Once I got back to Washington and had a chance to listen to all of the music from that day, I was most impressed with Ateh’s own CD, Ka Chieh Ma which he also gave me at that meeting. It thrilled me with it’s exciting, punchy rhythms and his matching vocal style. The music is earnestly rooted in the traditional dance style from the Northwest known as “Njang.” Ateh is it’s leading modern champion.
Another artist whose music I appreciate from that gathering in Buea is Eliré. This man was not in attendance but his music was given to me by a fellow musician by the name of Agbor Marts. Eliré comes from the Southwest regional Division of Fako. He is a Bakwere man and sings mostly in Mokpe and Pidjin English. I especially like this track that, for lack of a title, I call “Chop Chop.”
While in Buea, I spent one day with the vibrant community of University of Buea music students. We work shopped together at their campus and they performed a variety of styles such as smooth jazz, traditional, and reggae. They are best known for their choral music. The University of Buea Choir (UB Choir) regularly release CDs of their music. Here is my favorite piece from Vol. 4 entitled “Psaume de la creation”.
Back in Yaounde for my final two days before heading home I had the honor of singing the American and Cameroonian national anthems and a jazz set at the U.S. Embassy’s official 4th of July celebration (celebrated one month early). I was accompanied by the U.S. Embassy choir for the anthems and a quartet for the jazz concert. One thing I learned while rehearsing with the choir is that Cameroonians use the movable do solfege system to learn songs. Here is the sheet music for the National Anthem they gave me at rehearsal.
The choir rehearses the parts using the do-re-mi syllables and then layer the lyrics on top of the music once they’ve learned the parts.
After the choir performance, I sang a jazz set with a talented and seasoned group of cats: Marcel Tala – sax, Jean-Paul Lietche – bass, Paul Tchounga - drums, and George Essono – keys.
Manuel Wandji also joined me for a few improvisational moments and then he took the microphone and led the quartet from jazz to world music. His classic “C’est pas facile” excited the Cameroonian crowd. The embassy lawn was covered with elegant, colorful dancing dignitaries.
Before sharing my final 8th day’s activities in Cameroon, I diverge in time and place to present a fabulous interview I had with Manuel on March 23, 2015 in Washington DC. Months after my tour, I learned that he was coming through and would have time for a studio interview in our VOA studios. It was especially great to get this chance because while we performed and work-shopped together on several occasions in Cameroon, I never formally interviewed him.
On the day of my departure, I squeezed in one last music experience in Yaounde. I visited Crelicam, an ebony mill located just outside of the city. The place was bustling with activity. Inside, workers were cutting ebony into piano keys and guitar fretboards.
Taylor Guitar’s co-founder and President, Bob Taylor, explains the reason he partnered with Madinter Trade and bought this company in Cameroon to harvest ebony for his and most other premium guitars around the world in this YouTube address “The State of Ebony”. Start at 3:06 (if you’re short of time) to get straight to the matter, beginning with Bob’s reference to Madagascar and then Cameroon as the “last frontier” for legally harvesting ebony.
In January 2014, Crelicam won the Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) for its company’s transformative work in the ebony trade and in the lives of the mill employees in Cameroon.
As I said in the opening of Part 1 to this blog series on my eight days in Cameroon in 2014, Cameroon’s musical diversity is nothing short of spectacular. After only eight days that was obvious but imagine what other musical marvels dwell in that vast, rich country. Fortunately, we now live in the world of the Internet and, though there’s no substitute for actually being there in person, one can still explore and discover Cameroonian music through YouTube, Facebook, Soundcloud…and my radio show Music Time in Africa! I regularly receive messages through social media and email with links to new songs and videos. And for you guitarists or pianists out there, you may just be playing a piece of Cameroon on your fingers.