All of a sudden, it’s starting to look a little worrying for Africa in the World Cup – South Africa’s bravery and spirit hasn’t seen them through, Portugal’s embarrassing demolition of North Korea have made Ivory Coast very unlikely to qualify, and Algeria and Nigeria simply weren’t good enough. Ghana’s qualification yesterday makes them the continent’s only representatives, then; the subject of today’s blog, Cameroon, were the first team to be eliminated from the competition after two disappointing defeats to Japan and Denmark. If only today offered an easy chance to restore pride; instead, they’ve got to play Holland. Gadzooks.
When asking for a list of genres Cameroon brought to the world, you probably wouldn’t expect ‘disco’ to be one of the answers. And yet, it was Cameroon’s own Manu Dibango that conjured up Soul Makossa, the album – and song – most frequently credited with sparking the disco craze. A rare venture into the Billboard charts by an African musician, it became one of the most sampled, referenced, and copied songs of the era – Michael Jackson fans especially may recognise the opening vocal refrain. The album itself is well worth having, incidentally – it’s a brilliant funk record, fleet-footed and melodic throughout.
That song shares its name – or at least the ‘makossa’ bit – with one of Cameroon’s most popular genres of music. The other – a more danceable, off-kilter affair that hasn’t found the same level of popularity on an international level – is bikutsi. The only exposure that Western listeners are likely to have had to this sound is via Paul Simon, on both Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints (both also mentioned in South Africa’s entry in this blog series, of course), but the real stuff is a different beast altogether – heavily percussive, it’s summery, frantic, disorientating, and euphoric all at once. The sound quality isn’t especially great on the below clip, but you can’t front on that video; the band are called Les Têtes Brulées, if you fancy seeking out more; they’re responsible, more than anybody, for turning the genre towards pop, but they were batshit insane, so it’s okay.
From a cultural point of view, the most interesting thing about bikutsi is the way it walked hand-in-hand with women’s rights in Cameroon, with the genre often being an outlet for the expression of socially progressive ideas. Even now, the genre is seen as decadent and uncouth by a significant number of older listeners, so out of respect for that, let’s have something a little more in line with tradition. Olivier de Clovis, heard below, plays a form of assiko, a genre that is closely intwined with the dance with which it shares a name. Parallels could be drawn with skiffle; while referencing the established folk traditions of the country, it remains a ramshackle sound with cheap, makeshift instrumentation the rule rather than the exception. This is a fairly modern version, so the production values are a bit better than one might expect, but it gives a good overview all the same.