Roger Bekono - Roger Bekono
Available 16th June 2023.
Dynamite-charged bikutsi that sheds light on just one facet of the timeless and fascinating Cameroonian urban dance music scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Detailed liner notes in French and English along with rare, previously-unpublished photos.
Cameroonian artist, musician, author, composer, performer and guitarist Roger Bekono made a deep mark in the contemporary history of Cameroonian music through the four-on-the-floor, ribald intensity of bikutsi. The Ewondo-language dance-pop style that forms an undulating tapestry of interlocking triplet rhythmic interplay came to international prominence in the European “world music” scene as the 90s began. But the relentless sound of bikutsi developed in Yaoundé at the hands of Bekono and many others, as it developed from a village-based singing style performed mostly by women into a cosmopolitan music force that rivaled the popularity of established musics like Congolese rhumba, merengue and makossa. With his unique—some say suave—voice, Bekono contributed much over a period of more than 10 years as part of the evolution of this traditional rhythm-turned-urban dance movement.
Roger Essama Bekono was born June 15, 1954 in Atéga, Central region. His mother Scolastique Essama nicknamed him Beko-bâ-Andela, in homage to his great-grandfather who died a few years before his birth. From an early age, he was soon confronted with the harshness of daily life in the village. Young Bekono walked four kilometers to school from the family home each day followed by extensive domestic chores. So he had little time to devote to football and other types of children's games. Instead, he spent his time singing while working, developing his distinctive vocal timbre and from the age of 7, he joined the choir of the Catholic Church of Atéga where he sang for several years every Sunday. His mother worked hard to put him through school and eventually get him to the city for further education.
In 1968, Bekono left his native village to settle in Yaoundé, the capital city, with the ultimate goal of completing his secondary studies. 14 years old and living with his uncle, he went to high school and met some young people who shared the same passion as him, music. After class, they would go in groups near discotheques to listen to the music of their favorite artists of the time. They also discovered the events of the "Youth Mornings" organized at the Mefou cinema in Mvog-Mbi. During these events, the young Roger lets his talent speak through the popular songs of his idol who was none other than Mariam Makeba. She was an undeniable star throughout Africa. He was so into her his first nickname in music was simply “Mariam Makeba,” because of his ease in interpreting her popular songs, and because of her timeless, suave vocal timbre. At the time he was also a fan of Michael Jackson, Edith Piaf, Michel Sardou and Elvis Presley.
Sometime in the mid-1970s Bekono made an abrupt stop to his studies. His mother and his adoptive father were angry and demanded answers. He dreamed of going into music full time. However, being a musician at that time in Cameroon was not yet perceived as a worthy profession. Cameroonian musicians did not have a secure income despite their renown, and no copyright society had been set up yet. They had for the most part a bad boy image, thought of as people without a future. Therefore, it was difficult for his parents to accept. His mother was certainly disappointed by the sudden decision but she has always believed in him. So his step-father gave him a classical guitar and a tape recorder so that he could work independently on music full time.
Bekono knew you have to think about composing original music and lyrics instead of covering classics like those of Mariam Makeba. your own words and the music of your songs, the field of reflection is vast between your own experience and the evils that undermine society. However, he hadn’t yet settled on a musical style, so he initially composed songs with foreign colors like his song "Bòngo Ya Cameron,” which has a French flavor and of Rumba but sung in his own Ewondo language. His music is appreciated by those close to him and in the cabarets of Mvog Ada where he performs on certain weekends, he learned to play the guitar and perfectly masters the art of singing. At each of his live performances, he makes a good impression in front of a crowd amazed by his talent, and in front of certain actors and pioneers of a rhythm that is gaining ground in Cameroonian music known as bikutsi. Note here that the bikutsi is basically sung in the Beti language and can be defined as a music and a traditional dance from Cameroon, specifically an urbanize form of pop music based on Beti musical forms, originating in the Cental and South provinces where the Beti ethnic group resides. Bekono falls in with some of the main characters in the bikutsi scene and little by little he learns the basics, adapts and a few years later decides to release his very first project.
It was in the 1980s that the big names in bikutsi emerged. The style began to have international visibility. A multitude of vibrant, young talent appeared on the Cameroonian music scene. There had already been the crucial groundwork laid by the father of modern bikutsi Messi Martin who discovered how to transpose the sound of the traditional balafon (xylophone) to an electric guitar. Bekono sensed that bikutsi was in its golden age amid fierce competition he took his time to prepare his first solo album by working with the big names of the time, from both the old and new generations.
At the end of 1984, Bekono released his first project Oget Mongi on LP and as soon as it was released, the lead single "Ngon Nnam" hit the capital's radio stations. The end of the year in Cameroon is always marked by happy events like weddings, communions, baptisms, etc. and this song was heavily played at these types of events following the album’s release. He quickly became one of the rising stars of bikutsi and was invited to radio shows all over Cameroon and perform in the popular clubs and cabarets around Yaoundé. Oget Mongi was produced by Bekono himself under his Label Beko Production with the unconditional support of his parents (his step-father funded the project).
Television arrived in Cameroon in 1985, the year following his debut album, so there is no video clip of any of the songs from Bekono’s Oget Mongi. Indeed, Pope John Paul II’s first visit to Cameroon (over 1/3 of the population is Catholic) is one of the various elements that accelerated the process of the start of television in Cameroon. This papal visit is inextricably linked to Bekono’s story: Bekono was enlisted to write and compose the official welcoming song for His Holiness’s arrival. The song appeared just as attention for his debut album was in full swing. It became like a hymn during the Pope's stay in Cameroon, on television and on the radio, in Christian localities. Even after the Pope's visit, the song could be heard at various events.
Things continued to progress for the young artist, as his career climbed his home life developed. His daughter Ebah Marie Christine had been born a few weeks after Oget Mongi was released. His eventual wife Madeleine Bikié and he were so secure and happy that they had the capacity to help his younger cousins from the village who were then able to continue their secondary studies in Yaoundé.
In 1987, Bekono released Assiko 100,000 Watts on LP and cassette. Very quickly the album became a hit with "Biza" and "Assiko 100,000 Watts" receiving radio play. He sold plenty of records and cassettes and toured the nation. This album brought him to northern Cameroon, where met Ali Baba (the father of Soul Gandja, a style of his own design), a rising star of modern music in the region. They became close friends during that period. The album title refers to yet another style of dance and music, assiko, It is important to note the assiko is not a traditional Bassa dance, but rather a dance adopted by Bassa-speaking folks. It is a traditional Cameroonian healing dance transformed into a party dance, especially found among the Bassa and the Beti. It is therefore thanks to this song that Bekono gets invited to perform in this coastal part of Cameroon, Bassa country, where he meets assiko legends Jean Bikoko and Samson Chaud Gar. The song “Biza" also made a lot of noise outside the capital, and even in the Beti villages during celebratory events. Bekono set his sights on international superstardom though. So he began work on his third album, to be released at the end of 1989.
Let’s rewind a little bit first—the bikutsi rhythm was originally played by a balafon orchestra known as a mendzang (see mvett). Based on a cadence and stomping rhythm, it is also marked by a strong presence of percussion. In the 1970s, bikutsi was modernized with the introduction of electric guitar and bass, keyboards, horns and drum kit. The legitimate originators are Anne-Marie Nzie, Messi Martin and Ange Ebogo, but it was with the emergence of Les Têtes Brûlées that bikutsi will experience a earth shaking revolution with the talent of its master to play Zanzibar (Epeme Théodore), who, according to legend, was born with six fingers, allowing him to play with one string more than the others. In the mid- 1980s, the bikutsi rhythm evolved significantly both lyrically and harmonically. It became very danceable because the newest generation of artists added electric lead and bass guitars, as well as electric drums, to it to give it more percussive oomph.
During this same period, Clément Djimogne aka Mystic Jim (or Djim) launched an innovative concept that would solidify his reputation as a legend in Cameroonian popular music, having already performed on or produced boundary pushing recordings in the region. Mystic Jim built a recording studio called Mobile Studio equipped with a 4-track recorder, instruments, sequencers and amplifiers, which he set up in his living room. He surrounded himself with an experienced team of musicians to embark on musical production on an almost industrial level. We can’t talk about bikutsi and not discuss this actor and his role within the framework of the music in general and specific role he played in the realization of Roger Bekono's third album in particular, because according to the words of some elders that we have been able to collect for the background of this project, his studio had become an essential place for most of the bikutsi artists of that time. With modest equipment, his productions and his arrangements were better than those that came from the national radio studio. (As in many other African music capitals of the time, the best-equipped studios often sat on the national television or radio grounds, rather than in the hands of private citizens.)
Bekono therefore worked with him and his musicians as part of the production of Jolie Poupée.
Technology had certainly evolved at that time in terms of musicality in the formerly traditional rhythms, but the programming of this music was not yet at its peak as it is today. His first two albums were recorded to tape in one or two perfect takes the old-fashioned way, so the musicians had to be extremely tight. There was no overdubbing or recording parts separately. For Jolie Poupée Mystic Jim programmed the kick or bass drum, adding effects to have a heavier bass. Overall the album represented a new level of finesse and professionalism after a two-year musical silence.
In the middle of 1989, Jolie Poupée was released by the label Inter Diffusion System and aggressively hit the radio, discos and national television. The music video for the title track was on loop on TV. It felt like everyone was talking about it, even artists in adjacent music scenes like makossa. The album came out on vinyl and cassette and remains Bekono’s best-selling recording to this day.
With Jolie Poupée Bekono finally made an impact outside Cameroon as the record captured listeners in some Central African countries like Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo and Sao Tome & Principe. Why in these countries more precisely and not in other African countries? In these countries, we find the Fang or Mfan people (also known as Ekang), Bantu-speaking ethnic groups that are also found in Cameroon. This umbrella language group includes the language in which bikutsi is mainly sung. Most of Bekono’s songs are in French, Ewondo (of which Beti is a dialect) and Pidgin.
After Bekono catapults to international renown with Jolie Poupée, he was constantly invited to “Tele Podium,” the television program reserved for Cameroonian music elite, and guest of honor by the high authorities of certain countries such as Equatorial Guinea. The technical sheet of this successful album contains the names of the brilliant musicians who made it possible: Gibraltar Drakus & Roger Mballa (backing vocals); John Paul Mondo (bass); Noon Pierrot (congas); Jean Anthony Foe Amougou (Engineer); Daniel-Cimba Evoussa (guitar); Mystic Jim (music director and engineer); Jean-Paul Assamba (percussion); Steve Ndzana (percussion, drums, Gong); Francis Z. Saho (producer); Pierrot Ahénot (rhythm guitar).
The four songs on Jolie Poupée are all considered bikutsi classics. After this long period crowned with success and above all at the height of his art, Bekono decided to take a break from his musical career to enjoy family life while continuing to perform everywhere in Cameroon and even outside its borders. During this period, he became friends with some of his colleagues including Govinal (Ndi Nga Essomba), Gibraltar Drakus and Saint Desir Atango. They decided to form a quartet called Bikutsi System. In 1991, Bikutsi System released a long-awaited debut tape.
Unfortunately, it didn’t meet expectations and wasn’t successful. Many younger artists had emerged in recent years like Fam Ndzengue, Bisso Solo, Opick Zoro, Zélé Le Bombardier, with a new kind of bikutsi in terms of both musicality and dance. Perhaps the album didn’t work because the term “bikusti" referred to a somewhat different sound than it did when these all star veterans first hit the scene. Nevertheless, they recorded a second album together which was much more successful and then moved on separately to solo projects.
Bekono began thinking of releasing a double album, as full-force return to a solo career. At the time, most of those he worked with on his previous albums were unavailable. Zanzibar had tragically died on the eve of Les Tetes Brûlées inaugural European tour, for example. However, there was a talented new generation, thus he worked with new key people such as François Engoulou “Docta” and Tsala Martin Roger, produced by well-known figure in the bikutsi world Mr Ebanga.
The double album consists of two separate cassettes Ding Ma and Makeu Aluck. In 1994, after much anticipation among audiences awaiting new songs from the now-established bikutsi star, the newly created copyright structure SOCINADA was to handle distribution. However, on the eve of the project's release, Bekono and its producer Ebanga didn’t agree on certain points about marketing the album, so the double cassette’s release was continually delayed with thousands of unsold cassettes—and years of hard work—remaining at the SOCINADA warehouse. The failure annihilated Bekono psychologically, pushing him to put an end to his professional career.
In the mid-2000s, he had the ambition to open his own recording studio. Shortly after, though, he fell seriously ill and was diagnosed with severe diabetes. So he followed treatment for several years while continuing to write and compose songs just with his guitar and his sweet voice. He began to buy equipment to open his own recording studio. But the equipment was expensive. So he gradually bought what he needed but he relied on the computer skills of his eldest son Owono Bekono Emmanuel Ferdinand. He spent most of his time in the studio in his final years, with some fans still approaching him, and his friendly attitude hadn’t changed over time. Weakened and slightly emaciated by illness and the advancement of age, he continued to nurture his ambition to open his own recording studio and why not release a final album that would surprise everyone?
On September 15, 2016, Bekono died of a long illness at the age of 62. In the wake of his passing the media published a wave of tributes, thanking him for what he did for Cameroonian music. He was an admired musician, songwriter and guitarist, and some of his old colleagues and some of the new generation of performers showered Bekono with vibrant tributes via social media, many of which noting something to the effect of: “The artist dies but his works remain.”