On a Saturday night at the Stade Omnisports in the Douala neighbourhood of Bepanda, concert-goers bristle as they wait for their artist. Four men walk arduously onto the hall’s stage, carrying an ornate coffin on their shoulders.
The crowd jitters as the men lower the casket. They open the lid. The elegant corpse raises its head and jumps out, frantically pacing the stage. The crowd goes ballistic. The dead man walking is Petit Pays, Cameroon’s most popular makossa musician.
The artist unleashes makossa ballads from his rich repertoire. Fans enthusiastically gyrate to his voice and the instruments of Les Sans Visas, the most influential makossa band in Douala.
Over the years Petit Pays has groomed countless makossa artists and inducted them into his band. Singing in Duala, French and Cameroonian Pidgin they pluck inspiration from the coastal city’s traditional rhythms like Assiko, Essewe and Bolo Bo, but are also inspired by foreign sounds. Ghanaian hi-life, Zouk, Soukous and Ambas Bay – played by Jamaican crewmen during their sojourns in the humid metropolis – can all be found in makossa music.
The genre came to the fore through its founding father, Emmanuel Nelle Eyoum, in the 1960s, but it was the talented saxophonist and songwriter Manu Dibango who disseminated makossa globally with his 1972 hit ‘Soul Makossa’ (see box). However, no makossa musician has enjoyed as stellar a career as Petit Pays. His 1995 album Classe F/M had such success both critically and commercially that it remains arguably makossa’s magnum opus.
STREET OF JOY
Douala’s nightlife of bright lights and sounds offers an antidote to its dysfunctional commuter scene. The nightclubs and bars play all kinds of music to its dancing and drinking people. But Rue de la Joie in the Deido neighbourhood trumps them all. A lengthy street flanked by dozens of snack bars, motels, suya (meat skewers) and fish-burning kiosks, the ‘street of joy’ has become the epicentre of Douala’s night life. Its multicoloured buildings, embellished by giant photos of Manu Dibango, Petit Pays and celebrated Cameroonian footballers, scream loud music across the suya-scented streets in a collective musical stew.
The footballers themselves occasionally visit these spots of night pleasure, after a successful spell at their various European clubs. They meet old friends and hook up with new girlfriends. They ‘faroter’ wads of cash and lavish the best liquor, while a handsomely paid nightclub DJ yells their names and sings flatteries over a groovy ‘faire le boucan’ beat.
Though the legendary sound of makossa is fading, 21st-century Douala is back to being a musical centrifugal force, with artists from different ethnic groups cashing in on its ready market for the current urban musical wave.
Daphne is one of Cameroon’s most famous young Afropop singers. Her hit songs are on every stereo in Douala, cementing her status as the embodiment of the new beat. Her music is no doubt influenced by makossa and the Sawa Blues, but she has fused them with other traditional rhythms to create a new sound that is now the dominant genre in Cameroon.
“Douala now dances to more than just makossa. It increasingly is becoming the lucrative market that promotes and consumes the new urban sound of Cameroon,” she says, speaking from Buea, the small mountain town in the English-speaking South West Region.Daphne believes, however, that there is a shift from Douala to Buea as the engine of Cameroon’s fast-growing music genres: “It is where young talented Cameroonians from diverse backgrounds have come to leverage their talents, their traditional sounds and exposure to other genres of music to create the new urban sound of Cameroon,” she says.
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THE BEAT GOES ON
Another Afropop singer, Wax Dey, came to the limelight in 2013 with a groovy release aptly titled ‘Saka Makossa’, which he recorded in a Nigerian studio on a beat made by D’Banj’s producer. The song also samples the legendary refrain from ‘Soul Makossa’. Wax Dey later released the remix featuring Yemi Alade.
“I have run from the calm and predictability of Johannesburg, the heights and lights of New York, to re-establish myself in this city – in all its heat and humidity – because the sounds, the lights, the incessant hustle and bustle in the honking traffic quagmires, and the sweet smell of roasted fish or meat at every corner, a clink of bottle at the local bars, and the bourgeois calm of its classier neighbourhoods, with its sway of beautiful women and elegantly dressed men, are the same sights and sounds and smells that gave birth to my soul, my inspiration – that made me who I am,” he muses poetically.
Just like Wax, young millennials and diaspora returnees now abound in Douala; Francophones, Anglophones and a robust contingent of Douala-born-and-bred French and Lebanese, as well as Asians and Nigerians. They are listening to newer sounds: Maitre Gims, Tekno, WizKid, Locko, Toofan, Jovi, X Maleya, DJ Arafat and Charlotte Dipanda. The city regularly boasts of sold-out concerts and hip-hop festivals.
Douala remains the vibrant football-loving city that birthed Samuel Eto’o, the city where gleaming tones of the bass guitar still fret like drums. Old makossa artists are still creating fistfuls of beautiful makossa music. But with the current wave of urban music arresting its heart, will the new ears of Douala listen as the old ears used to do?
MANU DIBANGO’S 1972 hit single ‘Soul Makossa’ was the first song by an African artist to make it into the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973, peaking at number 23.
The song’s playful vocal refrain, ‘Ma ma Ko, ma ma Sa, ma ma Ma Ko Sa’, was poached and sampled by many international stars, such as Michael Jackson in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and Rihanna in ‘Please Don’t Stop the Music’, prompting Manu to sue both artists and win compensation.
Charles Lembe, Moni Bilé, Ekambi Brillant, Bébé Manga, Ben Decca and Dina Bell were among the next generation of artists who kept the makossa wheel spinning. It even found its way into schools: gifted singers and instrumentalists began to hone their craft in student music contests.
This led to the emergence of prodigies like Toto Guillaume, a key member of Les Black Styl, one of the most popular makossa bands from Douala in the ’70s. Toto is credited as makossa’s first arranger.
From the April 2018 print edition
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