There is something so evocative and refreshing about the music of Francis Bebey. Regardless of what angle you come from in your appreciation, whether it be through recognition of his pioneering production techniques or through the transcendental properties his truly original sound possesses, there is something for each and every one of us here.
Born in Douala, Cameroon in 1929, Francis 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.
In the early 1960’s, Bebey moved to France and started work in the arts, establishing himself as a musician, sculptor, and writer. While working at UNESCO from 1961-74, he was able to become the head of the music department in Paris; a job that allowed him to research and document traditional African music. Releasing his first album in 1969, his music was primarily guitar-based, but he integrated traditional African instruments and synthesizers into the mix as well. His style merged Cameroonian makossa with classical guitar, jazz and pop and his vocals were delivered in a mixture of Duala, English and French. Bebey recorded in a home-built studio, overdubbing all of the instruments himself, creating from this a series of stunningly inventive albums, most of which were released on his own Ozileka label.
Bebey helped launch the career of Manu Dibango, a Cameroonian saxophonist and Guinean kora player Mory Kante in the mid-1980’s (I remember Mory Kante’s Yeke Yeke when I was growing up!!). His music paved the way for these artists to explore the electronic avenues to their traditional native sounds and throughout his career Bebey released over 20 albums and became well-known for his poetry, one of which was dedicated to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 – this was entitled Black tears.
Sanza Tristesse was one of the first Francis Bebey’s song I heard and I loved it from the very moment it started playing – now I know where Devendra Banhart gets some of his influences! Featuring on his 1983 album Vingt Plages Ensoleillées, it’s a truly spellbinding track, both musically and vocally, marrying the old with the new through shimmering melodies and dynamic instrumentation. Listen above.
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