Working towards change in Cameroon’s challenging music industry

Cameroon has produced some of Africa’s best-known musicians, from Manu Dibango to Richard Bona, Francis Bebey to Sam Fan Thomas. Today the country is bustling with fresh young talent which, influenced by global trends, are playing a mix of contemporary rhythms, from soul to R&B, house to jazz and hip-hop. But the current crop of artists are having to do it all on their own with no professional organization, very few gigs and limited airplay on radio and TV.

Cameroonian musicians and music journalists with Music In Africa Foundation members at Bastos in Yaoundé.
Cameroonian musicians and music journalists with Music In Africa Foundation members at Bastos in Yaoundé.

Having listened to the great and good of Cameroonian music through the decades, I was thrilled to be on a trip to Yaoundé. The city was hosting the Annual General Meeting of Music in Africa Foundation. A female guitarist, who introduced herself as Danielle Eog Makedah, played a sweet acoustic jazz set at the opening session. Also seated in the same room was Serge Maboma, the heavy set bassist and band leader of the group Macase.

Macase was formed in 1996 but came to major attention after winning the prestigious Radio France International (RFI) 2001 Discoveries Prize, an award that has launched the international careers of musicians like Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou & Mariam and Rokia Traore. Macase call their music 'Bantu Groove', where modern jazz is played in a variety of styles drawing on guitars, piano and African percussions like the balafon. “We play jazzy chords but the melody is either from Fulfulde in the north of the country or Maka from the East or Ewondo from Central Cameroon” says Maboma.

Maboma was keen to introduce me and other visitors to a new generation of Cameroonian musicians who, like Eog Makedah, play contemporary urban styles; so he arranged for a visit to their rehearsal space in a neighborhood of Yaoundé called Bastos. “When we started the band we didn’t have space to rehearse so we decided to use this room, we removed the chairs, put guitars and we began to play,” he says. The single-room building in a compound adjacent to residential flats is located on a piece of land owned by Maboma’s family and has a complete band setup with keyboards, drums, guitars and microphones. After Macase became famous, many more artists from Yaoundé and other towns in Cameroon came to them for help and were allowed to rehearse at the same venue.

“The musicians call it Bastos, which is the name of the area but when you say ‘I am going to rehearse in Bastos’ then everyone knows what you mean.” Five artistes from the group that rehearse at Bastos have been finalists of the RFI Award, including Sanzy Viani, the finalist from Cameroon this year.

A few years ago, Maboma approached the Cameroonian Ministry of Culture for assistance in developing the space. “I explained to them that I had donated the room and needed assistance to improve the facility but they thought I wanted to build a house for myself so they said no.”

It is here that African stars like Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, Sam Fan Thomas, and Youssou N’dour rehearsed for their shows in years gone by, at a time when there was just a tiny verandah. Today there is a room with plenty of space for the musicians with their instruments to hold their practice sessions. Currently Maboma is seeking money to connect electricity directly to the rehearsal room rather than sharing a connection with the neighboring residential building.

“It is Macase which created a new live urban music scene in Yaoundé and there are many musicians in the city who come here for rehearsals,’ says Eog Makedah. We had no space to train and this was the first place that was open to us and we didn’t have to pay to use it.”

It is not just Cameroonian musicians who rehearse at Bastos. Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, incidentally the 2003 RFI Discoveries winner, who was in Yaoundé in October for a concert, was also practicing for his show at the venue. “Everybody in Senegal knows Macase as a legendary group and it’s a dream come true for me to come here and work with them,” says Awadi. “They are humble but their name is huge.”

When Macase go on tour they are often accompanied by one of the younger musicians . “All the young musicians around Macase are also becoming professional by emulating our work ethic,” says Maboma. “Here in Cameroon when you say ‘I play with Macase’ then everyone gives you credit.”

They have just completed recording their fourth album, Issie, whose title is a reference in the Ewondo language to a meeting of the elders in the village: “We have used this image to say that there was a problem in Cameroonian music and so Macase was called to propose a solution.” So Macase are the elders of Cameroonian music, I ask. Maboma laughs, “After 20 years, yes!”

When I say that given the legacy of the country’s music, I am surprised at the struggles of the current crop of Cameroonian performers, Maboma replies that the reality of the country’s music today is very different to what it might have been in the past. “There are no structures to run the music business in Cameroon today,” he says. “All those names you mention like Dibango and Bona made their names when the industry was organized.”

Today, he says, the artists don’t have venues, their rights are not respected but they continue to work hard because they are working towards change. Some of the younger artists who work with Macase agree with Maboma that the current generation of musicians in Cameroon operate in a very unprofessional environment.

Joel and Manfred Mintou are two brothers who, together with another sibling Emmanuel who is now based in France, formed the group Jem’m in 2008. “There is no union, no syndicate, distribution is weak and it is a lot harder to get any international exposure,” they say. Their latest album, Holol, a groovy fusion of house, hip-hop, jazz and R&B, gets very little airplay on Cameroonian radio because, as they say, the stations prefer to play musicians who are already established and so new artists have to rely on the few gigs available to promote themselves.

“So if a musician records an Ivorian style coupe decale or a Nigerian Afrobeat then the radio stations will play that because it is already popular, but if you play a more Cameroonian sound then the stations will just ignore it, ” says Alexander Akande, the creative director and designer for Jem’m.

However, Akande is of the view that artists in Cameroon and other parts of Africa gain a lot of confidence by seeing the success of Davido and Wizkid, two Nigerian musicians who have created an identity by playing a contemporary version of traditional music and singing in languages like Yoruba.

“These challenges inspire artists in Cameroon to create brilliant music,” says Akande. “There are artists that change because they want to keep up with trends and be played on the radio but there are others that know they can still be played as long as they do music that is original and is ten times better that what has been copied.” The musicians of Jem’m have vowed to keep doing music their own way, confident that their style can stand up against any Nigerian song or an Ivorian beat.

There is a new generation of Cameroonian musicians who are determined to create an impression on the global music map. The music business in that country is trudging along, even in the absence of professional systems of management and promotion of artists and distribution of their products. The artists can only fall back on their talent and the determination to succeed, though even that may not be enough to see them fulfill their dreams.


Originally published on 14 December 2015 in This Is Africa

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