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Vancouver Folk Fest 2017: Blick Bissy gives African roots music a case of the blues

On his third release, Akö, Blick Bassy audaciously entwines musical traditions from three continents, and several cultures. The West African singer and songwriter—who plays guitar, banjo, and harmonica—draws on influences from rural Cameroon, where he grew up; France, where he’s lived for many years; and the Delta blues of Skip James, an early inspiration. Arrangements for the 11 original songs are spare yet sophisticated, with no percussion and only cello and trombone as accompaniment—two instruments rarely heard in blues or African roots music.

“I was looking for a project where the main information came from my voice and one or two other instruments,” says Bassy, reached on tour in New York. “I love the cello, and I wanted something that sounded like a train—because when I was a kid in the village the train was something special. When you heard the whistle blow, all kinds of people would go to the station. It was an event. I used to sell doughnuts, calling out ‘Makala! Makala!’ I was looking for this train sound, which brought me back to this special scene that was an important part of our lives then—waiting for the train, for news, people, interactions.”

Variety and contrast characterize the tracks of Akö. The opener, “Aké”, in a minor key, creates a haunting, introspective mood, followed by the brighter, folksy “Kiki”, which in turn leads to the contemporary African rhythms of “Wap Do Wap”. The uptempo, fingerpicked “Moût” has clear links to James and the blues.

“When I was a child there was an old man who toured the villages with just a guitar. The first time I heard him singing Skip James songs I thought he was singing in an African language. I am from the Bantu people, and Skip James’s music sounded like Bantu music and really talked to me. So when I eventually heard him singing on recordings I thought it sounded like the old man. It immediately took me back. Skip James for me is the meaning of the blues.”

Watch Blick Blasse perform "Kiki" live at Café de la Danse in Paris in 2015.
Except for a few words of English and French, on Akö Bassy sings exclusively in his mother tongue, Bassa—which now has only some 300,000 speakers. By choosing it, he’s sending a message to young people in his homeland.

“Within a language you have your roots, your culture, and I think and dream in Bassa. We have 260 languages in Cameroon, but the official ones are French and English. Today the new generation don’t understand their own language—they want to speak French, and to be like westerners. In the next 30 years most of these languages will disappear if they are not taught. That’s why it’s important to me to be ringing a bell to say to my government and my people that we have to do something about it. My message is really about the transmission of culture between the generations.”