INTERVIEW WITH FRANCK BIYONG ABOUT THE NEW ALBUM
IBOLO INI | OCHESTRE LIPOMBE JAZZ
What was the objective/vision of/for this project?
The general perception that audiences have about African music has been twisted and misunderstood for decades now. The late 1950’s was a very exciting and uplifting period for African arts in general as most former European colonial empires were disintegrating: African artists, especially musicians, were carried away by that rising tide of optimism that was spreading all across the continent and it is precisely around that time that the very first post-colonial 100% African artistic expression suddenly came into prominence in Belgium Congo with the birth of Congolese Rumba. This music was celebrating the newly gained autonomy and freedom of the so-called indigenous people. Inspired and galvanized by the early achievements of Congolese musicians, most African Governments subsidized and sponsored large music ensembles and orchestras and built infrastructures that would allow music and other art forms to be the flagship for their countries’ political regime and place as newly independent nations in this then polarized world between the Western and eastern blocs.
The 1970’s were even greater for the music industry at large as the economic development of African countries was developing rapidly: this era can rightly so be considered as the “classic age” of modern African music. The importance of Traditional music and social values in the evolution of African music is rarely mentioned though as specialists and musicologists discuss the numerous spiritual and religious which is where the main issue lies: All the great musicians and artists of this era were largely born and raised in rural areas where the prominence of traditional music was undisputed and never questioned. Most musicians brought the songs, instruments, rhythms and social organization to the larger cities and capitals of the continent, therefore dramatically changing the course of African music and its meaning.
As African music began to gain more and more popularity in the west, record company owners, producers and enthusiasts tried and failed to create a fusion between Western and African styles in a dubious concept called “world music”. The importance of traditional music as the bedrock of cultural expression on the African soil slowly vanished to gradually become a strange form of entertainment where foreign audiences do not necessarily understand or comprehend the intricate meanings and various representation that African Music, Dance and Theater present but rather focus on the performance aspect of things: The music industry deliberately channeled the marketing and promotion of any African act in that direction and the most prominent African musicians followed the same road while gaining more and more popularity and exposure in the west. Then the industry came crashing down and the relative interest or support that African Music had disappeared completely.
The vision for this project was essentially centered around two pressing questions: Is there a thread that can be followed from the 1950’s till today as far as Artistic creation and evolution is concerned in Africa and if such a thing does not exist, where did we get lost at that crossroads? The second one was: can a culture and a people emerge and present who they are to the world if there is no respect of tradition as “the past speaking to the present”? While keeping all these historical facts in mind, we tried to shine a new light over the possibilities that traditional African music still offers for those willing to learn and take chances.
Why was it recorded in 3 different countries/studios?
We started recording in 2 different studios based in Douala and Yaoundé. Our Central African musical forms are very complex and bold and very much inclined to the high-forest climate, density, extremely diverse populations and languages. As I was playing the tapes to a few elders of mine, we had lengthy discussion on how we could approach this recording and expand the possibilities while clearing the path for a potential pan-African traditional music approach rather than just showcasing the Central African beats and sounds we knew already. The decision was then made to go to Paris where so many great West African musicians are based.
After working with the great Mamadou Camara from Mali, we realized that there was even more to it if we were not afraid to experiment and moreover if we did not have any targeted commercial approach on this project but would rather concentrate on creating something unique and breaking grounds. I have lived and worked in Paris for a few years, so I got in touch with creative musicians and friends who did bring unique musical contributions to this project. The last step of that crazy project and schedule was traveling to East Africa where the Orchestre Lipombe is based: We knew something special would happen if we could “confront” these sounds from East and West Africa as “soloists” while Central African beats would be the “rhythm section” of the ensemble. The result went way over my expectations and I have been very enthused by the performances, good spirit and creativity of all the participants on the record. The whole experience was a real blessing.
What is special about your choice of instrumentation and why mix cultures like this?
Well, African people have been divided for the past centuries by now. Without going back to the history lesson again, one has to remember that the idea of a country, administrative boundaries and so forth are still viewed as a foreign concept by most African people: Most African people defined themselves by the “tribe” (I really do not like to use that word though) they belong to. We would rather say their “people” than tribe or ethnic group, which is a misconception largely brought by anthropologists as they were “studying” indigenous people. So the geographic location, the mother tongue, cultural and social structures are the DNA of African people living in most rural areas.
As we study the lineages of these people, we realize and understand that these people have migrated on various parts of the African soil for centuries. Therefore, you can find Bantu people in West Africa (Casamance in Senegal or Liberia), Central Africa and East Africa (the Kisii in Kenya are Bantus). It is then quite likely that you may also find similarities in languages, traditional values and even more in art forms or music. With that idea in mind, we intended to create a different musical dialogue where the roles would sometimes be reversed, where certain percussion instruments who are generally performed by the soloists (le “tambourinneur” in French) would play rhythm parts and vice versa. Percussion instruments are the most powerful and modern instruments at the same time.
Most traditional horns instruments offer sonic possibilities that were matched only by keyboards and synthesizers while string lyre instruments cover a very wide range of expression that echo Ancient traditions, like the griot relating historical facts and lineages with his harp (found in many legends and founding myths in traditional and rural African societies). As we progressed in the recording process, I realized that we could create new harmonies and scales while focusing on the expressive range that these instruments can offer. The idea was then to select instruments that do almost sound similar but also complement (Obokano and Arc Masongo or Ngoni and Mvet)
What can a listener expect from the album?
To be surprised mostly, we hope!
More seriously, the attention that regular people can actually have for anything new that is being released is very limited in time: It is a matter of a few seconds now as people, young people especially, are scrolling through their I-phones or I-pads and are being bombarded by tons of different information daily. So, it I very hard to predict or foresee the kind of reaction or interest any project may gather if it is not straight ahead pop music or dance floor sound. For those who still think that like Prince said it “Albums, books and Black Lives still matter”, well, I guess that we could say this record may be a sonic experience worth immersing yourself into for those who think that there’s something more to African Music that Nigerian Afrobeat or that South African House thing that was ok when the Kwaito movement rose back then but which really fails to renew itself now and sound too predictable..
What are your future plans for the next album and how are they linked?
Well. Like Frank Zappa used to say, I have never recorded any album while thinking about the commercial reception. If I had done so, I would probably have quit the music business at least 10 years ago!! We are always trying to make enough money while touring to finance the next project and also make sure the next project will be different altogether and that we may mature and grow artistically.
The previous record “Moonwatching” was a full on Electro-Afro-Rock experiment that was quite interesting for me as I was fighting with the guitar to match these trap beats and extreme keyboard sounds. The next record will be a tribute to the African music heroes of the late 1950 like Joseph Kabasele et L’African Jazz, Franco et le TP OK Jazz, Camille Feruzi, Zacharie Elanga and others… the overall sound will be very much modern Afro Cuban Jazz influenced though…I think that there will be conceptual continuity on this record as well because this would be the second volume of our tribute to the evolution of modern African music. The next solo record will be an experimental Afro rock EP entitled “Evening Prayer”: The creative is to release 2 solo records and 2 Orchestre Lipombe Jazz and to make each project different: That’s how we keep things exciting and challenging.
The industry is quite lame and if one wants to change or alter it, then one has to get down to work, careless about record sales, be a great live act and push the envelope ‘cause the present day madness and decadent society is a reality that we will have to live in. My belief is that music has to be relevant, like news or a diary of what is happening right there under our noses. I do not hear anything that mirrors that. So I guess we have to do something about it and recapture our culture.
That’s what we’re trying to do.
Why have you collaborated with Sage and what is nature of the single release with her in relation to the album?
Sage is a great talent, and she is first and foremost a musician who plays piano, writes and sings beautifully. We had met a few years ago as we were collaborating on song with King Sunny Ade from Nigeria and I was impressed by her ability to make a typical 1980’s Nigerian song completely her own. So many of our young Singers and performers find their own style and unfortunately will stick to it ad nauseum to the point where they cannot evolve or grow. Sage on the other hand is evolving all the time Her voice is changing, her songs sound different and she is not afraid to challenge herself or to dare being different.
The song we have recently worked on is a poetry inspired love song produced by Aint4perfect, another very creative and very original beatmaker and producer based in Nairobi. Well, Sage’s song and that traditional album were pretty much conceived with the same intention and goal: a true, different, edgy and personal interpretation of African sounds that go against the grain, rely way more on the emotional depth and weight that any art form should carry: African artists generally fear to express their emotions because this is not socially understood and accepted and also because they still confuse music and dance, performance and entertainment.
Once there will be a growing sense of self-consciousness and once African artists will stop producing or releasing music to satisfy foreign and western demand, we will hopefully reach another interesting stage in Modern African music. We might not be there to witness that, but we still have to work hard to make things happen. This “IBOLO INI” record would not exist if Great Artists like Francis Bebey, Pierre Akendengue or Ray Lema had not influenced me so, we will continue our musical search and keep on recording and producing a large variety of African music styles and concept. It has been long overdue and it is definitely needed now more than ever, that is our belief.