With 1958, the Cameroonian musician presents his most political record yet: Blick Bassy has put his voice, his gentleness and his Bassa folk in service of the history of the militant activist Ruben Um Nyobè, the forgotten father of Cameroonian independence.
On September 13, 1958, Ruben Um Nyobè, a politician, secretary general of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon, militant supporter of the reunification and national independence, was assassinated by the French army after an epic chase. Sixty years later, Blick Bassy goes back in time with an album whose title marks the date: 1958. In eleven songs, Bassy summons the figure and the resolve of Ruben Um Nyobè as a statue might, but through musical, sonic tools: his voice, his language (Bassa) and delicate orchestration, lighter than the concrete screed under which the forgotten father of Cameroonian independence still lies. Here is “Ngwa,” ‘the friend,’ in Bassa.
“Heroes of his caliber are what our societies lack, especially the African and Afro-descendant communities. There is an urgent need for people who bolster our confidence, who return our cultural stories: this is the key to self-determination,” says Bassy, serious behind his big glasses. Within his pantheon resides beautiful figures: his mother, Marvin Gaye, Eboa Lotin, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Sankara and Skip James, whose dark blues he illuminated on Akö in 2015. Why did you wait so long to honour and rehabilitate Um Nyobè’s still murky history?
“At school, we were told that he and his supporters were simply terrorists, but in the village, the elders celebrated them secretly. People were afraid, and remained silent. Many disappeared as a result of supporting him. My grandfather hid in the forest for two years to escape persecution. My mother turned him into a character in a story. My father was a police officer, he was one of those who chased the resistance strugglers. I remember that when I was a teenager, people sometimes visited an old friend of his: Theodore Mayi Matip, Um Nyobé’s right-hand man. He was the man who betrayed him.” Bassy said before adding in a troubled tone: “But I could never discuss it with him.”
Through the books, Um Nyobè’s notes on the resistance and stories from the elders, Blick Bassy developed a critical mind, patiently deconstructing the undermining work of the colonial, state and family authorities. He went on to say: “1958 was also the result of an identity crisis. At first, and for a long time, I wanted to build myself, to find myself, as a person and a musician. Then I tried to remember the essentials: what am I really? What is the history of my country? Of what is mine? I wanted to understand what led Cameroon to the chaos that reigns.” With 1958, Bassy gave substance to the memory of a man who many have tried to consign to historical anonymity (notably by disfiguring his corpse) in order to make peace, to prompt the re-emergence of free speech on the issue, and to encourage Cameroon and France to take on responsibility and give young people the courage to seize their destiny. In “Kundé,” acting as Um Nyobè, he sings: “I sacrificed myself for our country, and left you the alphabet that will allow you to rewrite our history.”
“Intelligent and a visionary, Um Nyobè was highly educated, avant-garde even, and he was already fighting for gender equality. He had studied law and theology because he decided to fight his battles through debate. He even went so far as to point out to the French that they had not renewed their trusteeship contract! (laughs). Like Moumié or Ouandié, Um Nyobè was too bright and uncompromising, which made him dangerous.”
In 1958, there are no drums or percussion: in response to Um Nyobè’s non-violence, Blick Bassy buried his own weapons and also undertook the challenge of softness. Here, cello (Clément Petit), electronic keys, trumpet (Alexis Anerilles) and trombone (Johan Blanc) shape the rhythms and melodies of an elegant and minimalist organic folk. His arpeggiated Gibson and his voice, sometimes frayed and sometimes falsetto, manage to soften the contours of his anger. To each language its own poetics – and for his own, Blick Bassy chose Bassa, “the language of sincerity.” As for his visuals, they are masterful – especially for “Ngwa,” which is shot on the high plateaus of Lesotho. There, Bassy composes his language musically by utilizing very alluring images to reach as many of his contemporaries as possible.
“People are too afraid to stand up and fight for their rights, they have been convinced that it is more important to live in peace. Except that the whole southwest of Cameroon is at war, with more than 300,000 displaced and an increasingly worrying tribalism of hatred emerging against the Bamilékés… Um Nyobé predicted it,” Bassy said, the lines in his face crumpled in anguish. Since the presidential elections, which relaunched Paul Biya in 2018 for an eighth term, Cameroon has been undergoing a hardening process, preferring repression to dialogue and conciliation. For Bassy, a prime example of this occured on the January 26 incarceration of rapper General Valsero, known for plainly denouncing the Cameroonian state’s hidden scandals. “Somewhere along the way, that kind of thing heralds the demise of a regime: fear may be changing sides.”
“The great theatre of survival is marked by people having a lack of connection to their spirituality. All the solutions are under our feet, embedded in our traditions, within nature and our culture” explains Bassy, who tattoos his animist beliefs on his body – his deep relationship with nature – and the ancestral traditions of the Bassa people, traditions he connected with thanks to the six years he spent as a child in his uncle’s village. Today, in the footsteps of Ruben Um Nyobè, the musician doesn’t hide his eagerness to release 1958 in Cameroon, perhaps awakening “the insurrectional potential” evoked by the philosopher Achille Mbembe in the aftermath of the popular riots of 2008.
Blick Bassy, 1958 (No Format)
En concert à La Cigale le 15 avril !