Caption: Francis Bebey playing a sanza in his home studio c. 1970s. Photo courtesy of the Bebey family.
By Sophie A. Brady
While there has been significant study of European and North American composers who drew upon African musical elements in their compositions, artists from the African continent who also experimented with similar material have received less attention. One such artist was Francis Bebey (1929-2001), a Cameroonian-French writer, composer, and music scholar who lived most of his adult life in Paris, France. He was one of the first musicians from the African continent to combine electronic instruments, such as synthesizers and tapes, with African instruments, most commonly the sanza and n’dehou. <1> But his use of electronic instruments, though notable for its time, is just one dimension of his compositional approach. What makes his music truly avant-garde is how he transformed the conventional building blocks of a popular song—voice, lyrics, timbre, and instrumentation—to create something radical. In this blog post, I analyze the role that the voice plays in one of Bebey’s albums, Akwaaba: Music for Sanza (1985),to make the case for his music’s experimental legacy. Looking more closely at African artists like Bebey and others not only promotes a more global understanding of the history of twentieth-century music, but also complicates conventional notions of African music, which is frequently classified in binary categories of either traditional or popular music.
Caption: Francis Bebey, c. 1950s.
Source: “Francis Bebey, artiste 1929-2001,” Facebook profile page maintained by his daughter, Kidi Bebey.
Born on July 15, 1929, in Akwa, a village which is now part of Douala, Cameroon, Francis Bebey was the youngest son of Fritz, a Baptist pastor, and Magdalena. <2> Services at his father’s church exposed him to European sacred art music, and as a child he taught himself to read music and play the organ.<3> Later, Bebey moved to France, where he studied at the Sorbonne and at the Studio-École of the Société de la Radiodiffusion d’Outre-Mer, a training program run by Radio France for broadcasters and technicians from former French colonies and overseas territories.<4> From 1961 to 1974, he worked at UNESCO, first as a Program Assistant and Editor in the Radio and Television Department, then as a Cultural Development Program Specialist and Head of Music.<5> His daughter, Kidi, recounts how her father heard Andrés Segovia on the radio one evening, and this inspired him to pick up a guitar and begin playing in the evenings after work. <6> He released his first record with two original compositions in 1965, but it was not until he took an extended musical research trip to the African continent on behalf of UNESCO that he decided to pursue composing and writing seriously. <7> He made more than 25 records during his career, composing many of his pieces in his living room with homemade equipment and the help of his children, two of whom, Toups and Patrick, toured with him until his death in 2001 and are still professional musicians today. <8>
Though Bebey is perceived as a popular musician, the experimental dimensions of his music reflect what Benjamin Piekut terms the “vernacular avant-garde,” or music that is rooted in popular and populist ideas or forms while also presenting a radical or critical aesthetic translation of modernity. The mainstream appeal of pieces like “The Coffee Cola Song” (1982) confirms his skill in the popular sphere, but his works also challenge the aesthetics of conventional popular music. Many of his pieces are purely instrumental, and those that do feature lyrics are bitingly satirical, with complex poetic language that could be confoundingly opaque for his audience. Combining synthesizers and tapes, conventional guitar, bass, and drum machine, African instruments, and eclectic melodic sources, some of Bebey’s longer compositions are more than ten minutes long and push the boundaries of the typical pop music form. As Kidi Bebey recounts, “sometimes the public, eager to dance and sing along […], found themselves surprised and even bewildered by some of his more difficult compositions.” <10>
Musical Example: Akwaaba: Music for Sanza (1985)
Commentors often highlight Bebey’s innovative use of electronics, pointing out that he employed an electronically modified sanza more than twenty years before Konono Nº1 did the same thing on their 2004 Congotronics album. <11> But if we look beyond the electronics, we can hear how these instruments interact with other, more innovative aspects of his compositions. For example, in his 1985 album, Akwaaba: Music for Sanza (1985),Bebey exploits the extremes of his voice and the various effects of microphone distortion and manipulation, shifting between sprechstimme-like speech, gravelly baritone, and trembling falsetto. Against a backdrop of electronically modified sanza, bass guitar, drum machine, and n’dehou, each track on the album blends into the next, giving the impression of one continuous, 42-minute composition. On the second track, “Bissau,” his quasi-monotone parlando becomes more and more distorted as the song continues, giving a plaintive quality to his repetition of the song’s title as he extends the final syllable until it becomes an unpitched, staticky scream that disappears into the n’dehou flute (7:39-8:42). The next piece, “Binta Madiallo,” showcases another aesthetic dimension of elongated syllables. This time, Bebey’s light hum floats high above the other instruments, rising and falling with a fluttery tone until it finally dies out (13:48-14:13). “Sassandra,” the sixth work on the album, introduces yet another dimension of the voice as Bebey’s sigh weaves in and out of the instrumental texture. But this time it is inhalation that is the focus, with a shuddering, noisy breath punctuating the beginning of each syncopated melodic fragment (29:00-29:34). The final track, “Di Sengi,” begins with a tight, rhythmic dance groove, with Bebey counting in German before launching into a catchy, repetitive refrain (35:34-37:03). With a quality somewhere between speaking and singing as introduced earlier in the album, Bebey intones the verses in the Douala language conversationally, pausing poignantly as though waiting for an interlocutor to respond and punctuating his musings with the occasional deep chuckle (37:38-37:54). As though showing off the ease with which he has moved through a veritable catalog of virtuosic vocal techniques, Bebey’s laugh concludes Akwaaba with a surplus of joy.
Recently, Bebey’s music has experienced something of a revival with a series of compilation and remix albums released by Born Bad Records, a French indie music album. <12> These reissues mediate North American audiences’ nostalgia for an earlier era of dance music with consumeristic demand for novelty by inviting them to discover Bebey’s “psychedelic” and synthesized beats. The trend echoes a similar interest in world music recordings from indie labels such as Sublime Frequencies and others, which propose distorted, obscure tracks from elsewhere in the world as a replacement for a disappearing North American analog underground culture. <13> But packaging Bebey as merely the African equivalent to well-known North American and European dance music trailblazers risks obscuring his music’s unique cross-genre contributions. <14> Bebey’s total transformation of vernacular music idioms both delighted and perplexed listeners in his day, and retaining this productive tension is vital for understanding the history of the global avant-garde.
<1> The sanza, also known as the mbira, is a lamellophone, or thumb piano that is popular throughout Eastern and Central Africa. The n’dehou (alternate spelling: hundewhu)is a bamboo flute that is played by people from several ethnic groups in the Congo River basin in Central Africa. Here is a brief video of Francis Bebey demonstrating the n’dehou: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6T6suvnhco.
<2>Bebey, Kidi. My Kingdom for A Guitar. 2021, 6. At the time of Francis Bebey’s birth in 1929, the modern-day country of Cameroon was divided into French and British colonial territories. Prior to the French and British occupation, it was a German colony, which is perhaps reflected in his parents’ German first names. Kidi Bebey speculates that Magdalena Bebey (her grandmother) might have intended that Francis be named Franziskus or Frantz, but this was never confirmed because Francis’s mother died shortly after he was born.
<3> Ibid, 16.
<4> Archives Nationales de France, Fonds Culture; Radio France.
<5> “Francis Bebey – Curriculum Vitae” and “Francis Bebey – Description des Postes (UNESCO),” private archives.
<6> Bebey, Kidi. My Kingdom for A Guitar, 38-39; Kidi Bebey interview with the author, November 16, 2021.
<7> Ibid, 182-184.
<8> Patrick Bebey, Interview with the author, December 14, 2021.
<9> Piekut, Benjamin. Henry Cow: The World is a Problem, 2019, 388.
<10> Cagnolari, Vladimir. “Farewell Bebey, your children salute you,” 2021
<11> May, Chris. “The Electric Futurism of Cameroonian Trailblazer Francis Bebey,” The Vinyl Factory.com, October 9, 2018.
<12> All released on Born Bad Records: African Electronic Music 1975-1982, 2011; Francis Bebey- Remixed, 2013; Psychedelic Sanza 1982-1984, 2014
<13> Novak, David. “The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media,” 2011: 630.
<14> The Bebey remixes and rereleases are part of a broader theme: another recent compilation, Alternate African Reality – Electronic and Experimental Music from Africa and the Diaspora [hyperlink: https://syrphe.bandcamp.com/album/alternate-african-reality-electronic-electroacoustic-and-experimental-music-from-africa-and-the-diaspora] released on the Syrphe platform in January 2020, includes 32 artists and groups from 24 African countries, and a recent listicle published by Redbull music promises “A history of African electronic music in 10 essential tracks.” [hyperlink: https://www.redbull.com/za-en/african-electronic-music-10-essential-tracks]
Bibliography and Discography
Bebey, Francis. La Condition Masculine. Paris, France: Ozileka – OZIL 763302, 1976.
Bebey, Francis. Akwaaba: Music for Sanza. New York: Original Music Company—OMCD 105, 1985.
Bebey, Kidi. My Kingdom for a Guitar. Trans. Karen Lindo. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2021.
Cagnolari, Vladimir. “Farewell Bebey, your children salute you #1: Kidi Bebey,” Pan-African-Music.com, May 26, 2021: https://pan-african-music.com/en/francis-bebey-1/.
Levitz, Tamara, and Benjamin Piekut. “The Vernacular Avant-garde: A Speculation,” in ASAP Journal.com, September 3, 2020: https://asapjournal.com/the-vernacular-avant-garde-a-speculation-tamara-levitz-and-benjamin-piekut/
May, Chris. “The Electric Futurism of Cameroonian Trailblazer Francis Bebey,” The Vinyl Factory.com, October 9, 2018: https://thevinylfactory.com/features/electric-futurism-francis-bebey/.
Novak, David. “The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media,” in Public Culture 23, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 603-634.
Piekut, Benjamin. “The Vernacular Avant-Garde,” in Henry Cow: The World is a Problem. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019: 387-407.
Sophie A. Brady is a PhD candidate in musicology at Princeton University. Her dissertation considers the contributions of musicians of African descent to the musical avant-garde, focusing on cross-continental exchange and experimentation at Francophone radio stations in Europe and West Africa from the 1950s to the 1970s. Her scholarly interests include music and decolonization, twentieth-century experimental composition, global popular music, and the history of sound reproduction technologies. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society and the Journal of Popular Music Studies.