You may not realize it, but your life has already been impacted by Cameroonian music. Even if you don't know Manu Dibango and his song "Soul Makossa” you surely have heard of a guy called Michael Jackson and his song "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'”? How about Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music”? The timeless Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah hook on both American hits was first uttered by Dibango. More thorough music nerds may have heard Richard Bona’s devastating bass guitar grooves; for those with African parents, surely you grew up serenaded by Prince Nico Mbarga's song Sweet Mother.
Music from Cameroon has a history of spreading deep into the mainstream, no matter where you live. But ironically it is also some of the most difficult music to come by online. From what I gather, this is simply because internet penetration in Cameroon remains very low, and people there still rely on CDs, radio and TV. I say "still" because in a country like Ghana, CDs are a thing of the past, and the technological jump is impressive: mobile phones are the weapon of choice to listen to music, and Bluetooth is the technology of choice to share new songs. In Cameroonian cities like Douala and Yaoundé, though, pirate CD distributors still set the tone. It is challenging for artists to make it: distributors don't typically spend a dime to produce music, and since piracy scares away investors, profits will be non-existent. Nobody with money in mind will do it, but thankfully there are still stubborn artists who decide to drop everything to focus on music.
This is the case with X-Maleya, a trio hailing from Yaoundé. Their song "Tchokolo” is what put the group on my radar: a good friend of mine came back from Cameroon a few months ago with this gem of a song on her iPod. I was instantly hooked; I played it in loops over and over. When I spoke to a Nigerian friend here in Accra and he told me he'd heard the song a lot back in Nigeria, I knew something serious was up. Then I learned Pit Baccardi is involved… Grand slam.
Download: X-Maleya, "Tchokolo"
X-Maleya's story begins in the late 1990s, when Roger, Auguste and Hais decided to go against the advice of their parents and teachers and focus on their hobby of choice: music. The group started by doing covers of Michael Jackson songs and dances before deciding to write their own songs. What started as a gamble quickly turned into a reality, but not without difficulties: at every stage, they had to do everything themselves, from recording to mixing to mastering to shooting videos to promoting the music.
When X-Maleya started, the trend in Cameroon was to emulate Western music, chiefly hip-hop and R&B. Artists shied away from local rhythms, and there was even this feeling that digging into traditional music was not hip, not looking into the future. But our stubborn trio nevertheless decided to incorporate elements of bikutsi, makossa, assiko, bend-skin and many other genres and rhythms into their distinct afropop musical stew.
With all odds against them, these natural born entertainers saw their music and videos catch steam, and they were able to release two full albums on their own, before they caught the attention of a certain Pit Baccardi. While the name may not say much to most Anglophone readers, it meant a LOT to me growing up as a teenager in the late 1990s in France. Pit Baccardi is one of the most significant rappers of what I consider to be the golden age of French hip-hop. Here he is featured on what may be the most influential radio freestyle ever in France—Pit clocks in around 4:50.
Pit was born in Yaoundé, and although he spent most of his career without noticeably embracing Cameroon in his music, he's been going back a lot, and it's no surprise he tilted when he first heard X-Maleya's song "Yelele” in 2009. He met with the group and suggested doing a remix of the song with them, with a new video for it. The song did so well he decided to produce and manage the group, and to help them reach a wider audience. I'd like to stress how exciting it is for me to see a veteran African-born, European-raised artist embrace his roots and share his expertise with artists back home. I salute Pit for his efforts, as I salute Mokobé, who has also looked into his Malian heritage for inspiration for his most recent projects.
Today X-Maleya can already be heard across most of Francophone Africa, but Pit and the group's objective is to grow way beyond that. They just finished a series of European gigs and are heading back to Yaoundé to work on their fourth album, which Hais, the guitarist of the band, tells me will incorporate even more diverse influences. Then they have a show in Equatorial Guinea, then back in Paris to shoot a video, then back in Yaoundé to finish the album, then back in Europe for more shows. The life of rockstars.
And as for "Tchokolo," the title's meaning is kept secret by the two-year-old little girl who repeated the word over and over as the group recorded new songs. They decided to make a song out of it, and unless I'm missing something, it does not have any secret meaning. So until the little girl explains to the world what she meant: Tchokolooooo!