The electric futurism of Cameroonian trailblazer Francis Bebey

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Placing synthesisers and drum machines at the centre of his music, Francis Bebey was a pioneering force for electronic music in Cameroon – an alchemist of the over-dub who proposed radical futures for all African musicians with prophetic conviction.

When the seismic steam-punk of Konono No. 1’s Congotronics was unleashed across Europe by Crammed Discs in 2004, you would have searched the reviews in vain for a mention of the originator of the band’s defining, amplified-sanza sound. This Mad Max-like sonic alchemist was, and mostly still is, assumed to be Mingiedi Mawangu, Konono No. 1’s founder. But the award should really go to Francis Bebey, a Cameroonian composer, multi-instrumentalist, writer and philosopher who had begun recording with an electronically distorted sanza in 1974. Konono No. 1 were not far behind Bebey, using a similarly customised instrument on a compilation recorded by the Ocora label in Kinshasa in 1978. But, hey, credit where it is due. Bebey got there first.

African music’s first self-declared modernist, Bebey’s innovations extended beyond cranking up the sanza. In the early 1970s, based in Paris, his home from the late 1950s onwards, Bebey became the first African musician to place synthesisers, electric keyboards and programmable drum machines at the centre of his music, setting them alongside traditional African xylophones, harps, sanzas, flutes and an array of drums and percussion. The much-feted William Onyeabor was, like Mingiedi Mawangu with the sanza, several years behind Bebey in the use of synthesisers. Yet despite his achievements, Bebey’s name is missing from most published histories of modern West African music, or is, at best, consigned to a footnote. It is a bizarre omission, perhaps explained by the fact that the books in question have been written by Anglophone authors based in Britain and the US.

A middle-ranking official with UNESCO by day (until he left to concentrate on his music and writing), by night Bebey recorded in a studio he built in the spare room of his apartment. Overdubbing all of the instruments himself, he made a series of breathtakingly inventive albums, most of them released on his own Ozileka label, which paved the way for the electric adventures of fellow futurists such as the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango and Guinean kora player Mory Kante in the mid-1980s. The bloodlines of Dibango’s Electric Africa (1985) and Kante’s Akwaba Beach (1987) can be traced back to Bebey’s groundbreaking 1976 albums Fleur Tropicale and La Condition Masculine.

“What I’m aiming to do,” said Bebey when I interviewed him in 1982, “is to use Western technology to invigorate African music and spread its message internationally.” Bebey had set out his artistic manifesto over a decade earlier, in his inspirational treatise African Music: A People’s Art, published in France in 1969. “Welding and regeneration will be the pattern for African art,” wrote Bebey. “Many of the foreign influences that have penetrated Africa will be incorporated into a new form of black African art. This form of initiation may be deplored by those with deep-seated conservative or racist tendencies, but far from resulting in a bastardised and damaging modernism, we believe this mutation will breathe new life into African art and will demonstrate the triumph of humanism and universality over esoteric sterility….It is imperative that the future of African music be based on the idea of development and not merely upon preservation.” To concentrate on preservation, concluded Bebey, would be to risk turning African music into a museum piece.

Bebey’s outward-facing stance was hugely controversial in the 1970s and for most of the 1980s – largely among the emerging European audience for African music, many of whom were obsessed with a spurious concept of “authenticity”, by which they meant the elimination of all perceived “foreign” influences. This patronising, implicitly racist belief held African musicians to be incapable of modernising without destroying its essential qualities. The prejudice persisted through the “world music” movement of the 1980s and dogged Bebey for much of his career. (In contrast, the authenticité policy introduced in independent Guinea by President Sékou Touré in the early 1960s, and later adopted by other post-colonial African countries, had sought to energise African arts by remaining true to their traditional roots while also welcoming experimentation.)

Between 1975 and 1997, Bebey released over 20 albums on Ozileka, plus a dozen or so more on other labels. The Ozileka discs were pressed in limited numbers and copies are hard to find today. In recent years, Paris-based Born Bad Records have released two excellent compilations, African Electronic Music 1975 – 1982 and Psychedelic Sanza 1982 – 1984. Also readily available is Bebey’s African Music: A People’s Art, which was reprinted in the US in 1999. A magisterial survey of the continent’s acoustic music, profusely illustrated with Bebey’s evocative photographs, it is still one of the best books ever published on the subject.

Although Bebey did not embark on his electronic adventures until the 1970s, he announced his cross-cultural outlook in 1965 on his debut album, Pièces Pour Guitare Seule. The all-acoustic disc blended traditional Cameroonian makossa and other Central and West African folk styles with European baroque and romantic music – the first of several firsts for Bebey. Among the album’s champions were the Spanish guitar virtuoso Andrés Segovia and Léopold Senghor, the president of Senegal. A co-founder of the influential intellectual and cultural movement Négritude, Senghor hosted the first World Festival of Black Arts (FESTAC) in Dakar in 1966. After being sent a test pressing of Bebey’s album, he wrote an endorsement which was printed on the rear sleeve. Expressing ideas which Bebey incorporated in his manifesto in African Music: A People’s Art four years later, Senghor urged African musicians “to take root in the African negro tradition [while] at the same time welcoming all foreign influences of any value. In this way we will emerge from [the self-imposed constraints of] our folklore to produce beautiful works which will be no less African.”

Bebey made two more acoustic guitar albums after Pièces Pour Guitare Seule (and several more in subsequent decades), before releasing his first synthesiser and keyboards disc, Savannah Georgia, in 1975. His experiments with electronics continued over the next twenty years, as did a parallel series of mainly acoustic sanza albums, on which he overdubbed sanzas of differing sizes and pitches, creating trippy, magical soundscapes of rare beauty. Bebey passed away in 2001, but his pioneering aesthetic has been taken forward by new generations of musicians, including his sons, saxophonist Toups and keyboard player Patrick, who calls his own music AMAYA, which stands for African Modern And Yet Authentic.

Illustration by Bethany Porteous

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