A woman with two facets. Seeing her in our offices – measured step and weighted gestures, her eyes seeking her interlocutor’s approval – it is hard to believe that it is really her, Lady Ponce, the high priestess of bikutsi, to whom the sobriquet ‘100,000-volt Lady’ fits so well.
[My children] know that life has not been kind to me.
The 38-year-old singer-songwriter and producer set the Olympia stage alight on 10 September and is planning to repeat the performance in Cameroon, where she is due to perform at Yaoundé’s Palais des Sports on 17 December. In the meantime, between two rehearsals, this divorced mother of three children says the trio have learnt to do without her because of her career.
“I am incredibly lucky: they are very independent, especially my eldest, who is 20 years old. I feel like I’m seeing myself at their age, on my own. They also know that life has not been kind to me”.
‘My daughter the nun’
As Lady Ponce unravels the threads of her life story, she implicitly tells us the story of her father. He was an orphan taken in at the age of six by priests, who had predestined him for the holy order but excommunicated him when they discovered his love affair with a chief’s daughter. Later, as if to atone for ‘his mistake’, he decided that one of his children would dedicate her life to God.
It would be his daughter, Adèle Ruffine Ngono, who has since become Lady Ponce. A seemingly wise choice: the youngest of 12 was very pious, her daily life punctuated by prayers and religious choir songs, which she enhanced with her contralto voice. However, Lady Ponce’s mother died suddenly – poisoned, she says – and the whole family lost its bearings.
I clung to music like a lifeline.
The future singer then left the institution that was preparing her for life as a nun to explore other horizons, far from the family circle. “I forbade myself to imitate my sisters, whose lives seemed insipid to me. They were all married at 14. When a young man from the village was looking for a wife, they always pointed to our house.”
Lady Ponce’s musical adventure began in a ndombolo group in the Essos district of Yaoundé. This was followed by a period of cabaret concerts in the 2000s, with a repertoire leaning towards Afro-jazz. The 16-year-old, who learned her trade from her mother, a singer and leader of village associations, sang songs by Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Monique Séka, Manu Dibango and Femi Kuti, among others. At her father’s request, the band leader drove her home every evening after practice.
READ MORE Cameroon: Makosa, the sound of the city
The determination to pursue a career in music came after the birth of her son in 2002 and the death of her father. “I was distraught, with no permanent job and no training, so I clung to music like a lifeline; but [getting] produced was a challenge. I had to be able to stand out from artists like Kareyce Fotso, who had a head start. It was a strategic choice to go into bikutsi.”
‘The Belly and the Underbelly’
It was a successful strategy. The public discovered this declared feminist in 2006 with ‘Le Ventre et le Bas-Ventre’ (‘The Belly and the Underbelly’), a song “composed to avenge a neighbour regularly humiliated by her husband”. Other international successes followed, uniting the African diasporas around the world. ‘Confessions’, which highlights the immaturity of men always ready to remind women – who have dared confide in them about previous love affairs – of their past.
‘Bombe atomique’ (‘Atomic Bomb’), is her true story of love hindered by consumerism. There epistolary exchanges with the lover, who was trying to win her back, gave rise to one of the cult refrains of Central African music: “I give you my heart / I give you my life / And that, and that there / That too, that [thing] there, take it as a gift”, the “that there” suggesting a very precise part of the anatomy…
I would like every African who dances to my music to find the characteristic steps of his or her country
With her powerful voice and frenetic rhythm, Lady Ponce’s bikutsi, like that of her elders from the pre-colonial era, remains an outlet that allows women to regain possession of their voice, which society still denies them.
However, even as Lady Ponce screams her joys, sorrows and desires, her bikutsi is not limited to crude texts on sexuality and relationships. Her songs also exalt fables and proverbs, all of which are sublimated by a very high level of the Ewondo language.
Fascinated by Sally Nyolo – for her authenticity, her perfect mastery of the Manguissa-Éton language and traditions – Lady Ponce claims to have taken over from Messi Martin, Ebogo Emerant and other Têtes Brûlées (Hot Heads), who began to modernise bikutsi in the 1970s. She introduced drums that are characteristic of Congolese ndombolo, which is reflected in the dance itself.
With Lady Ponce, bikutsi ceased to be purely a waving back and a frantic floor beat, and she added the ndombolo wiggle. “I would like every African who dances to my music to find the characteristic steps of his or her country,” says the woman who also describes herself as the “lioness of Cameroonian and African culture”.
In response to those who lament what they see as a certain standardisation of African dances, with choreographies seeming interchangeable throughout the continent, Lady Ponce sees a form of African unity. “The guitar notes in Manu Dibango’s or Angélique Kidjo’s music can be found in Singuila as well as in Koffi Olomidé. These are universal African guitars,” she says. In 2012, Lady Ponce’s dusting off of bikutsi led her to become the first artist to be crowned for this genre at the Kora Awards.
Even though she has accumulated many awards, her triumph at the Olympia helped put a delicate period – both professionally and personally – behind her. In 2020, when her first concert at the Olympia was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, her relationship tumult had kept social networks in suspense for weeks.
The cause was an outing by her husband, Dieu Cyclone, who revealed he had discovered her infidelity. He shared the names of her alleged lovers, including bass-baritone Jacques-Greg Belobo, before making a public apology a few days later.
“A skit”, the singer says in response, as she brushes it off. She won’t say any more about the affair, enigmatically evoking the need for a famous person to sign a prenuptial agreement in order to “protect oneself from tactless husbands who have nothing to lose”. For this mother, who had been rather discreet about her private life until that point, the hardest thing was seeing her eldest son shaken by the attitude of the man who was then his stepfather.
Slander, ad hominem attacks and clashes on social networks have become an integral part of artistic life.
During this chaotic period, bitter taunts and remarks came from the bikutsi scene, which, according to Lady Ponce, “can be wonderful”, but sometimes “diabolical”. “Slander, ad hominem attacks and clashes on social networks have become an integral part of artistic life,” she says.
She refers to a “tiny group” of female singers who have come together on social networks, united by their common hatred of her. Saying she’s been persecuted, Lady Ponce decided to file a complaint in court against one of these women – whom she refuses to name – for defamation, false denunciation and damaging her image.
The complaints against Lady Ponce are numerous “and fanciful”, she says. Some accuse her of having spoken to Samuel Eto’o so that he would not support them. Others allege that she was close to the activists of the Anti-Sardinard Brigade (BAS), a movement opposed to the regime in Yaoundé, which prevents artists, suspected of collusion with the ‘enemy’, from performing in the diaspora.
Lady Ponce’s concerts are unfettered, which some see as proof of her duplicity. “Charlotte Dipanda and X-Mayela’s shows are not boycotted either, yet no one accuses them of having bribed BAS,” says the author of Not Guilty, who sees only one explanation: jealousy. “If you ask me […] which female bikutsi artist at my level I dream of doing a performance, I would say none. I’m honest: I don’t put on a fake show of sorority; I keep my distance.”
I don’t put on a fake show of sorority; I keep my distance
A few young people nevertheless find favour in her eyes, like “[her] sister Amazone” and Tchakala VIP, whom she invited to the Olympia stage, offering them a moment in the spotlight.
This is her own way of handling politics because in Cameroon, politics is not something one wants to practise. “Can you claim to be involved in politics in a country where you have neither the freedom to think nor the freedom to speak? Worse, tribalism has become embedded everywhere, and any debate becomes tribal, so what’s the point?” she says.
Granted the title of ‘Dame of the Order of Valor’ since 2014, Lady Ponce invests her energy in social causes.. She says she was inspired by A’salfo’s achievements in Côte d’Ivoire to create the SEFEDI Festival (Women’s Diamond Week), aimed at enhancing women’s value, held at Planète Ponce, a 2,000-seat cabaret in the suburbs of Yaoundé.
Another subject that has caught her attention is copyright. “Cameroon is probably the only country in the world to have three ‘operational’ copyright companies. It’s an aberration that seems to suit everyone, whereas an audit should be carried out and a single service provider appointed to deal with the distribution of rights. It seems the prevailing disorder suits some people: the money that is supposed to go to artists can disappear with impunity,” she says.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options