Francis Bebey :: Nonaligned Spirit

Francis Bebey (real name Francisco Birago Diop) was born in the Cameroonian port of Douala on July 15, 1929. The son of a Protestant minister, grew up surrounded by literature and music. Apparently able to play any instrument he got his hands on, from the guitar to sanza or pygmy flute. He was an artist in the deepest meaning of the word, musician and writer, one of Africa’s most famous personas. He was the man who dug into his roots and made them bloom, to be admired by everyone. Many consider him as the father of world music.

He started as a guitarist in a band while he was a teenager in Cameroon. His greatest influence was classical guitarist virtuoso Andrés Segovia. Later attended a college in Douala, where he studied mathematics. In the mid-1950s he moved to Paris to study music at the Sorbonne. There, disappointed by what he saw towards African culture, he came up with his plan – to use Western technology with the combination of African instruments to spread African culture. After attend the University of New York, where he continued his studies in journalism and broadcasting. He moved to Ghana at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah and took a job as a broadcaster. In 1960 moved again to Paris, where he worked at various radio stations and later recruited by UNESCO to research and document, as a consultant, the traditional African music.

Francis continued to perform guitar recitals throughout his years of employment. He never stopped composing his own music, earning a notice of his poetic lyrics and his expressive voice. He was singing in Duala, English, and French which gave him advance to approach wider audiences. By 1967, he gave several performances around Africa, Paris and New York. His first recordings were released by Ocora. It was a 10”, which included two pieces of guitar solos.

Bebey wrote poetry, novels and nonfiction works. His first novel, “Le Fils d’ Agatha Moudio”, was published in 1967 and remains his best known work. The critics found the work a well crafted masterpiece and won the Grand Prix Litteraire de l’ Afrique Noire. The following year, “Embarras et Cie: Nouvelles et Poèmes” – nine short stories, each accompanied by a poem – was published. In addition to exploring childhood and adult experiences, he also wrote tales taken from the African tradition. In 1979, he published a well-researched book about African music, “Musique De l’ Afrique.” Bebey claimed that his experience in radio stations influenced the style of his stories, which was directed to the listeners rather than the readers. In 1974, he left his job to focus on music and writing.

He even created his own label, called Ozileka, in order to release his recordings. Bebey released about twenty albums over his career and helped launch the career of others, like Manu Dibango. He remained committed to the arts until his death on May 28, 2001 in Paris. His music can described as an amalgam of traditional African music with Latin American influences and a Western glimpse. His music was, almost, in guitar-based compositions, with the addition of traditional African instruments, like sanza or mbira, and synthesizers or keyboards.

What’s really remarkable is the loose, non aligned spirit that runs through his music. He was composing, performing and even recording by himself, a one man band, difficult to realize it while hearing his recordings. After all, he was satisfying his creative side more than he was creating music for the masses. Bebey did everything through art, which aims to promote the values of Black culture. His songs are mostly sound like jams or freakouts, aural paintings more than proper compositions. So out of this world but earthly at the same time.