Blick Bassy is a Cameroonian singer and multi-instrumentalist, living in France and creating highly original African music. These days, he is touring with a trio, playing banjo and singing, backed by cello and trombone. The ensemble is featuring songs from Bassy’s 2015 album Akö, in part inspired by the late American bluesman Skip James. Afropop’s Banning Eyre sat down with Bassy shortly before a recent concert at the Lincoln Center Atrium in New York. Here’s their conversation.
Banning Eyre: Blick, thanks for talking with us. First, why don’t you give us the short version of your story, your beginnings as a musician?
Blick Bassy: I am an artist, musician and writer born and grew up in the French part of Cameroon, but I’ve been living in France for 11 years. I started with the band Macase with whom I played for 10 years. We made a career in Cameroon, we receive a RFI [Radio France International] award in 2001, a Kora award in 2003 and a Siciba prize. After 10 years with Macase, I decided to move to France because I wanted to go farther, to greet new horizons. Since I started my solo career, I have released three albums, including two on a Dutch label, and the latest, Akö, on No Format which is a French label. I am touring with this album right now.
Let’s talk about Akö. You present it as a tribute to Skip James. Why Skip James?
Things happened in a random way. I was living for three years ago in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, in France, where it is cold. My heater broke down during winter… At this time, I was listening to Skip James, and I had his picture on my studio’s wall, next to those of other people who inspire me, like Ruben Um Nyobe, Thomas Sankara, Marvin Gaye, Charlie Chaplin… My eyes stopped on Skip James, and I was telling myself that even though I was cold, I was almost privileged compared to him, who lived through the ’30s, the segregation in the United States. So I took my banjo, started to play a few notes, and after two weeks I had about 60 tracks.
What is it that touched you in his music?
Skip James’s music was part of my father’s record collection, with others like Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. That was a different kind of listening because I was a kid back then; I wasn’t yet a musician. Then I came across Skip James again much later. I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. I found his voice sad but very touching, minimalist but incredibly powerful. I could understand him without understanding. The emotion was carrying me completely. What he does with very little is incredible. For it was, and still is, the blues itself. His blues is really close to the Bantu blues. Skip James was reminding me of Bantu singers from home, especially an old man who used to travel around my childhood village singing with his guitar.
When I was a kid my father sent me to a very strict uncle to receive a traditional education. That uncle never smiled. The only time I saw him smile was when this old blues singer came to do a concert in our village. I thought to myself, I had to play the guitar, because for me it was a magical instrument that had managed to wring a smile out of that uncle who never smiled. That was my first encounter with music. It had a power! This guy just sang and played his instrument, and I saw a kind of relief on my uncle’s face when he smiled. For three years I had never seen that! I told myself: “How can I have this power and try to seduce my uncle?” [Laughs]
That’s interesting. You know, a few years ago, we did a show called “Africa and the Blues.” We interviewed the Austrian musicologist, Gerhard Kubik, who wrote a book, Africa and the Blues. He listened to a lot of recordings of traditional music. One of the strongest examples he found was one of a Cameroonian woman, singing while grinding grain. It is a sound that, with no explanation, gets really close to the sonority and the tonality of the voice in blues. It is a great mystery…
Absolutely. Because Africa is plural, and so is the blues. When one listens to the blues coming from West Africa, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, it is completely different from the blues coming from Gabon, or the one coming from Cameroon, or Congo. Because it comes from the Bantu people, who are completely different from the Mandingo people. West African music is often pentatonic, while in Central Africa it is more diatonic. There are different ways of singing, different griots. For instance, the griots in Cameroon from the Bassa and Beti tribes have nothing to do with the griots in Mali or Senegal.
The origins of American blues are very complex. It is impossible to truly understand them. People who want to simplify things, like saying the blues comes from a particular ethnic group or village are way off.
Yes, because the blues is also an intention, a lament, an emotion. Emotion doesn’t have a village. Otherwise we would know it; we would all have gone there to find it! [Laughs] Emotion is everywhere. It is the interpretation of that emotion, of that intention, that varies from one place to another. For my album Hongo Calling, for example, I wanted to understand where the hongo rhythm came from. It could be found in the Bassa tribe in Cameroon, but also in Senegal, in Cape Verde, in Benin… And it could be found in Brazil. So I went as far as Brazil to know if this hongo traditional rhythm—which was played during mourning and healing ceremonies in Cameroon—had the same role over there. I was surprised because it didn’t at all. It was exactly the same rhythm but placing the first beat in a different place. I began to wonder if it was during slavery that it had reached all the way to Brazil. But it’s a rhythm that is found in other countries. So we realize that we can’t say: “It definitely comes from my hometown.” The music appears everywhere, like grass growing in the whole wide world. Although there are different types of grass, it grows all over, and I think it’s a bit similar with music.
Let’s talk about the songs on Akö. Can you talk about some of the songs?
As I say, the album was inspired by Skip James, but I also had an idea about how to improve the human condition, for future generations. I took the term “rural exodus” for instance. Because one of the things that some African countries are suffering from today is migration, with the next generations dying in the Mediterranean after leaving their villages—villages with lands that remain totally untapped. The ones leaving are often land owners. So I try to say that young people leave their villages to go gather in cities, and then once in the city they seek to go the West. They know they are land owners, but they leave the lands because in their mind they have been led to believe that being rich is living in the West. And I simply try to bring them back to reality by saying that happiness, beauty, poverty, misfortune—these are things that must be redefined for us. What are the frames of reference that make a person rich today? Does being a consumer make us rich? Does being in a totally liberal society make us happy? Happiness and all these things must be redefined in every society with respect to these realities, with respect to environment, and with respect to mores and traditions. So that is the work I wanted to do through this album.
For example in “Wap Do Wap,” I call on young people not to leave. I draw different pictures: an empty classroom with the teacher sitting in the middle of it; a goat hanging out in the middle of a living room, because everybody has left; I describe a courtyard where there’s nothing anymore, the fruits are falling, they’re rotting by themselves, because everybody has left. Actually I describe a very rich environment, but abandoned by people who go gather in poor places, because they have been led to believe that wealth is elsewhere.
Was your first instrument the guitar?
Yes, the guitar.
Why did you make the transition to banjo?
These days I try to go into things a bit more, a bit like a gold digger, I try to dig little by little. That’s how I started to play the banjo. I play it like a guitar, six strings, standard tuning. But this sound that the banjo has was interesting to me for this album because I really wanted a mix of tones, with the banjo, the cello and the trombone, and to have my voice as the main element. I was looking for this sound, because the banjo also reminds me of the sound of some old guitars of mine. And because I wanted this ancient sound and style, in particular with the inspiration from Skip James, I was really looking for an instrument that would fit into that, and that would bring that. So the banjo seemed like the ideal instrument.
So it’s only for this project. You will get back to the guitar one day.
Yes, on the next project. Actually I like to treat each album like a different project. I may use the banjo on my next project; I may not. Perhaps I will be on to something else. The world is so rich, so beautiful… I am hyperactive and everyday I think to myself that there are so many possibilities to make great projects, going for other things, in other environments. So for sure on the next album I will go on to other lands to seek gold. [Laughs]
I saw the video for “Loñ,” and I saw the band, banjo, cello and trombone. It’s a very interesting combination. How did you get to that?
I really love the cello, and originally I wanted to do a minimalist project just with banjo and cello. It started like that. Then as we were playing I was looking for a different tone. And the trombone was reminding me of the train whistling when I was a kid. A train’s arrival was an event, something very important in the villages. And when it was whistling, a bit like the trombone does, people would come out of their houses and go to the station. Back then there wasn’t any telephone so people would just reach the station, they would dress well, they would go to the station. Some were waiting for somebody, some weren’t waiting for anybody, some were hoping that maybe someone would come. [Laughs] Other people accompanied their friends, and we children used to sell small things to eat to the passengers. It was the only event going on in the village. So people would dress up, put on a suit and everything. And that event was announced by the sound of the train, which resembles the trombone. I used to love this sound, that kind of tone, and that’s the reason why I thought of the trombone.
I have visited many countries in Africa, but not Cameroon. Our presenter Georges Collinet is Cameroonian. I know that the country is rich with many musics, traditional, popular, bikutsi, makossa… And the country is well known for bassists, like Richard Bona, Etienne Bape, and many more. Do you have an audience in Cameroon? Do you go back? Do you play there?
Of course! I was lucky enough to grow up there. I did my all my basic training there. I started by playing in school orchestras. My first band, Macase, which is still in Cameroon and still working, I created this band. I was 10 years with them and I left, so each time I have an occasion to go and play there, of course I gladly go and play because it’s home, it’s my audience. I did all my training and gained a lot of my experience there. It’s with this band that I formed myself, that I understood that music is a job in itself, that the thoroughness of daily work with which we tried to train ourselves paid off. I try every year to go back there, not always to play, but every time I have a serious occasion to go and play there, yes, I gladly go.
In which part of Cameroon did you grow up?
I grew up in Yaoundé, between Yaoundé and the village, Mintaba, Ngog-Mapupi, all those Bassa villages. So I was between Yaoundé and those villages.
That’s the bikutsi region isn’t it?
Yes, bikutsi comes from Yaoundé, the center and the south. Precisely, bikutsi has massively influenced me. Not only the music, but the band called Les Têtes Brûlées. They really influenced me because for me they truly were one of the first Afro-punk bands. Today everybody talks about Afro-punk, but I think that they were the first rocker Cameroonian band. It was rock and some with bikutsi, and the rock attitude they had, it was great!
I remember them well. They were fantastic on stage.
Those guys reminded me of the attitude of Prince, of David Bowie, who in my opinion were people completely emancipated from society’s barriers and the borders built around us. I think that is what every human being must be. We must emancipate ourselves from the norms society imposes on us. We are too nice, we are too obedient. We artists are fortunate enough to be allowed a little bit more, to try and go across those barriers. So bands like Les Têtes Brûlés, Prince, David Bowie, these are people that inspired me and who in my opinion really reflect that vision to go and seek freedom as human beings.
What about that band’s leader?
Jean-Marie Ahanda, he’s still in Cameroon.
I did a few interviews with him, he was very cool. Good to know he’s still around! So coming back to your music, you have a very original sound with this band and in general. You aren’t in any predetermined course, or following the trends. But what do you think of what’s happening with the African popular music at the moment? I recently spent time in Nigeria, where they are the kings of African pop now. [Laughs] But this generation’s music is completely different. It’s a new sensibility! What do you think about that?
I think that this movement coming from Nigeria has very positive aspects, and a few negative aspects, but mostly positive. Because the Nigerians have a strength: they understood something that I think is genuinely breathing new life in Africa. Nigerians are very proud of who they are. They are a proud people. And through the videos the images and the cinema they make, they have managed to reclaim their roots, their culture, using modern tools to showcase all that. And I find it awesome. You only have to watch all the videos—I’m also a producer in Cameroon, I own a label, I produce people in urban music, hip-hop, etc. Ten years ago every rapper was making their videos like the Americans, with guns, big cars, swimming pools, etc.. The Nigerians came and showed that it’s possible to make videos in the village, with what we are, with a Hummer parked in the village, with the village chief and everything. And today all the videos being made are like that.
Those young people were ashamed of their villages, of their completely disadvantaged neighborhoods. Today they all go back there to make videos, to say: “We belong to this.” So that’s positive. The fact that these young people have succeeded. This music from Nigeria has managed to reclaim even the rhythms. Because this new music, pop, that they call Afrobeats, there are a bunch of traditional rhythms that can be found in Cameroon like the bolo bolo mbaye, which was virtually unused by young people. They didn’t care. Today they all go back into it, they go digging, using modern sounds and reclaiming those rhythms and this wealth they had, on which they were stepping because they wanted to resemble French, British, or American music.
So that’s positive, because Nigeria has managed to bring about this kind of craze that takes them back to the roots. The other thing, unfortunately, is that we have TV channels—which I will not list here—in a constant loop, and they are the ones that decide who is going to be a star. Those channels are listened to from morning until night and they only broadcast this Nigerian music, or music that sounds like it, so every young artist tries to do this to be on TV and become a local star. It becomes a problem because as a result those channels don’t play artists like myself for instance. Yet they should play things that could inspire other styles so that not every musician thinks there is only one musical genre, only one aesthetic. No!
There is pop music, rock music, indie, improvised music, contemporary music, folk—there are a lot of styles! But the media doesn’t encourage young people. And because there isn’t any conservatory or structure, everybody will go one way. Besides, we live in a society where everyone wants to win everything, right now, with social media, etc. Everybody is dreaming about becoming an overnight celebrity, we are in the reality TV era, and everybody wants to become a champion without working, without searching, without delving into things. That’s the problem with this music, which is positive in itself. I think that just like music from Nigeria, we should be able to have a popular music coming from Cameroon, from Benin, from Namibia, from Zimbabwe, and so on. Because Africa is rich and plural.
The other thing is that young people aren’t as inspired as they used to be to learn an instrument. Music is created with a computer in a studio. I wonder what’s going to happen with the future generations, if that’s the model.
Yes, that’s why it’s urgent to structure, to raise people’s awareness. But for instance in Cameroon and the neighboring countries, a lot of young people have become stars in two or three days. The same channels are broadcast everywhere. But I think time will bring order back to things, and they will see the difficulty of holding a career in the long run. We talk a lot about young people these days, especially when they do something that creates a buzz, but then there’s another generation coming very rapidly that will have different codes. These young people today will become obsolete quickly. So if they don’t have a real plan that makes sense, they will disappear. Little by little people will understand that the only ones who remain are the ones that are really working, as nature intended: we are born, we crawl, we walk, we begin to run… Everything is like this!
We’re living with this sort of rapid construction where you don’t have any time to learn anything because you just need to take a picture of yourself with a filter, sing something quickly, add some Auto-Tune, be on TV nonstop and perform lip sync playback everywhere. They will know that only those with a real plan, a true vision, hard workers, last in the long run. Little by little they will realize.
It’s very interesting to see those changes. We remember when everybody wanted to play Congolese music. Now it’s Nigeria. Change will come.
Absolutely, it used to be Congolese music, then it was coupé-décalé coming from Ivory Coast, now we’re on the Nigerian style, and so on, but it will fade away. And we can see who stuck around since, who continues to lead a real career, to make a living, to live off his or her work at home and abroad. Very few people among those who were there are still around. Time calms things, shakes things up, and only the solid ones remain. The rest fall down! [Laughs]
One last question, as we’re talking about changes in music, and about messages. I remember so much great music started with independence dawning in Africa. I’m talking about the music from the ’60s and ’70s. There was a lot of pride in countries as they rediscovered traditions that had been marginalized by colonizers. So much music was recovering its African identity. Then we had that imitation period, as you said, of American, European music. Now it’s something else again. People talk a lot about Nigeria because of Fela, but nobody there today sings like Fela. Everybody’s talking about dancing, partying, women, cars. And there’s a big discourse on the role, the responsibility of popular singers, to deliver a message to young people. Do you have an opinion on that? Because you sing about serious things. You deliver a message. But there’s a critique of a lot of music now, that it has no depth and is only interested in partying.
My approach from the beginning has been to address social issues that concern us. Because I tell myself that I’m lucky enough to have a platform, a microphone, journalists interviewing me. For me it is an opportunity to communicate through my songs and everything I do—I just published a book with Gallimard [Le Moabi Cinéma] in France talking about immigration, to try and make young people aware so that they stay in Africa. Because for me the future has always been there. My role through everything I do is really to get the message out. I consider myself as being the voice of those who are suffering, who are looking for a better world, for a different life. That will only be done through acts. We complain about politics, we complain about everything. But if we want to change things, no one else will do it for us. It is each of us, at our level. So it’s essential that I take actions. Each of us must be a citizen, taking action for the future. That is the only way things will change.
Often we have the impression that the powerful ones are those who govern us, but the power comes from the population, and the moment when the population, the people, will realize they have the power to decide, then everything stops. Everything stops. That’s what I’m trying to say, that we live in a completely participatory society, and that people need to become aware of that.
For example, for tonight’s concert, I don’t see myself as someone who is on stage, who is there waiting for fans or people to come in. No! I believe that this event will only take place because each one of us are actors this evening. The simple fact that people come out of their house, come all the way here, they take action. This action allows that moment to exist. Because without these people, all alone, I cannot do anything. And everything is like that, we just need to become aware of it.
Unfortunately, there are many artists, many “stars,” who think they are champions. We are not champions! Without others we are nothing. I see some artists spitting on the very people that make them exist—they are “bedroom artists.” We need to be aware—artists, politicians and others—that each card we put on the table, it’s us deciding through our actions. As an artist it’s very important for me to talk about these things. I don’t need to speak about partying, dancing, etc. All of this already exists. This is not what will change the community, the human being. We can see where we’re heading today with terrorists, etc. If we want this to change, it’s with education, with day-to-day actions, with information. And education isn’t necessarily school, it’s simply to empower people by saying that the fact of getting up everyday at home, you want things to change. What is the action you’re taking? And little by little it becomes something grand and that’s what changes the world.
Thank you so much, Blick. Good luck with the rest of the tour.