The heroes of African independence trip fairly easily off the tongue: Nkrumah, Lumumba, Seckou Keita, Ben Barka, Nyerere. But what about Um Nyobé? Anyone? No…thought not. Even though his movement, the UPC (Union of Cameroonians Peoples), suffered torture, summary execution, mass deportation and the use of napalm, even though it fought a war with one of the highest death tolls of all the many African wars of independence, there are no grand squares or avenues named after Ruben Um Nyobé, no imposing statues of him, no postage stamps bearing his face, nothing.
If you’ve never heard of him, you can forgive yourself. Ever since his death in a hail of French army bullets on September 13th, 1958, Um Nyobé’s memory has been subject to a campaign of subtle annihilation, piloted by France and supported by France’s political puppets in Cameroon. Until recently, anyone who even mentioned the name of Um Nyobé back in Cameroun, or of Felix Moumié or any of the other senior UPC activists, faced arrest and an indefinite jail sentence.
Blick Bassy thinks it’s time to break the silence once and for all. He wants the truth to breathe again so that it can help heal the wounds of today. That’s why he’s called his new album 1958, and why it’s dedicated to the memory of Um Nyobé, Moumié and the other heroes of Cameroonian independence. His zeal for remembrance was provoked by a growing dismay at the state of his homeland. “Last year I went back to the neighbourhood where I grew up [Nkol-Messeng in Yaoundé], and I thought ‘it’s just not possible!’ It used to be great there; it makes no sense that fifteen years after I left it, it’s in the shit. And I ask myself how did we get to this point?”
He knows the answer. Cameroonians have forgotten their past, their traditions, their inheritance, their real heroes. They’ve lost sight of the shared stories that make a nation proud, even possible. Uncovering these stories is the purpose of 1958.
The music in which Bassy envelopes these themes and memories works like a balm of seductive tenderness and sorrow, rather than a weapon of revenge. Imagine a West African artist with the tenderly subversive touch of Bon Iver, the haunting falsetto of Skip James, the razor-like mind of Akala, and the inventiveness of Moses Sumney, and you’ve just imagined Blick Bassy. Music always comes first for him, subject matter later. 1958 keeps faith with the style he’s been developing since he turned solo in 2009 – a style unique in contemporary African music, fed by Bassy’s love for the aerial soul of singers like Skip James or Marvin Gaye, and by his deep reverence for the traditional !! music of Cameroon and other parts of Africa. The DNA of this style is hard decode: its structure seems both rooted in specifics, and yet gleefully universal, pan-African, global; its allure is both reverentially aged, gentle, and at the same time, iconoclastically new.
Incorporating older traditions that are steeped in the ancestral soil and beliefs of ‘village’ Africa, into a contemporary borderless sound, is both a declaration of independence and an act of defiance. People, especially Cameroonians, often ask Bassy why he insists on playing “white people’s music” rather than the pumping grooves of the West African hit machine. “‘Why are you insulting yourself?!’” is his answer. “I mean, if there are people today playing real Cameroonian music, it’s the people at [traditional] healing ceremonies, or people who play music for trance, for rituals, for mourning. We have 10,000 different types of music from one tribe to another in Cameroon, where there are 260 different tribes. It’s so rich.” All that inherited wealth has been feeding Bassy’s imagination since he was sent away from the capital Yaoundé at the age of ten, to live with his grandparents in the womb of the great equatorial rainforest. The lessons he learned there about the primacy of nature, the importance of village society to African identity, the uniquely poetic qualities of Bassa, the ancestral language he uses in his songs, underpin his life and resound through his work. They first took shape in Macase, the highly successful, award winning group he founded in Cameroon. Their expression matured after Bassy moved to France in 2005, in a string of acclaimed albums that culminated in 2016 with the release of Akö, which included the song ‘Kiki’ that was chosen by Apple to serenade the worldwide release of the iPhone 6 – the gentle murmur of the African forest tenderizing the irresistible gleam of our technological frontiers.
Like Akö, 1958 strokes you into an embrace, rather than pulverising you with beats or bitter regret at the state of modern Cameroon. Its back-to-the-future blend of voices and assorted guitars (Bassy), cello (Clément Petit), trumpet and keyboards (Alexis Merrill) and trombone (Yohann Blanc), has been expertly coaxed out by producer Renaud Letang (Manu Chao, Feist, Saul Williams, Lianne La Havas, Charlotte Gainsbourg). The gentle pulse of the forest lives on in traditional beats such as the assiko, bolobo or hondo, their Bassa mythologies repurposed for new ears, bearing songs of praise to unjustly forgotten heroes – songs like ‘Mpodol’, which means ‘He who carries the voice of his people’ in Bassa and was the nickname of Um Nyobé; ‘Maqui’ which speaks of the courage of the bush fighters in the face of French terror; ‘Ngwa’ in which Bassy briefs the ghost of Um Nyobé on the state of the country for which he fought; ‘Ngui Yi’ that bemoans the blithe !! ignorance of modern Cameroon youth, hypnotised by the baubles and empty promises of the West; or ‘Pochë’ which reminds modern Cameroonians of those who betrayed the country’s true interests.
That rainforest was also the place that sheltered friends and supporters of Um Nyobé during the ‘Hidden War’ against the French, including Bassy’s mother and grandparents. His father – an employee of the French colonial government and later member of the police force – played an ambiguous role in the conflict. After independence, it was his job to hunt down UPC refuseniks, and he was friends with Mayi ma Matip, the man whom many suspect of betraying Um Nyobé to the French. Does Bassy regret never talking to his father about all this? “Yes, enormously. I became interested in all this after his death. It’s one of my greatest regrets.” But 1958 is isn’t a call to regret, mourn or hate. It’s a call to act. Blick Bassy, believes that, like Europe, America, Russia and China, Africa must fight for its interests. “The emancipation of Africa interests no one else. People fight for their own interests, and they’re right to do so. It’s up to us Africans to defend our interests from now own.” Bassy fights not only with the seductive touch of his music, but also with his books (he published an acclaimed novel called Moabi Cinema in 2016), his various labels and production companies, his You Tube music-business training video series, his global talent contest Show Me. The sheer breath of his activities is astonishing. All this to try and help his fellow Africans, and the rest of us, understand the true nature of his homeland, what made it, and what it must do to prosper. “If you take China, or India, you see that they’ve manage to keep a real connection with their own history, their traditions. But for us, the problem is that we don’t have that foundation. And as long as we don’t make the immense effort needed to anchor ourselves to our traditions, our history, it’ll be very difficult to produce a generation able to achieve its own emancipation…For me, it was obvious that I had to delve back into our history, because when you’re lost you have to look at the string you’re attached to. What’s it tied to? Where does it come from? What’s its story?” The answer is 1958.
“A unique album by a singular artist who defies categorization.”
– Songlines (Songlines Best Album 2019), UK
“Charming and wildly eclectic songs. A charming, intriguing set.”
– The Guardian, UK
“The most original live performance of 2015 goes to Cameroonian magician Blick Bassy at the Africa Utopia Festival in London.”
– BBC (part of Top 10 albums of 2015), UK
“One of Africa’s most inventive and distinctive singer-songwriters”
– The Guardian, UK
“One of Africa’s most striking talents (…) 1958 is a safe bet for December’s best-of-year lists”
– The Times, UK
“Music you need to hear”
– Okay Africa, US