It doesn’t sound very promising, does it—an African singer-songwriter who cites James Taylor and George Benson as major influences?
Cameroonian Henri Dikongué is part of a new wave of African musicians on the World Music scene, a trend that critic Will Hermes has dubbed “Quiet Storm acoustica”. Think of Cesoria Evora or Rokia Traore or Sheikh Lo. It’s a kind of reaction to the tendency to straightjacket World-Music African as funky dance music. A transition from Afro-Beat to Afro-Pop.
And why not? It’s a big continent, with innumerable musical styles, so why should African World Music only mean super-charged, rhythm and bass-heavy dance tunes? Why shouldn’t African music also mean singer-songwriters who concentrate on producing lilting melodies and articulate lyrics?
Dikongué not only concentrates on melody and lyrics rather than the funk, he also plays acoustic guitar. He has been based in France since 1986, where he went to study law, but quickly abandoned it for the music-making profession. One can get a sense of what Mot’a Bobe, his third album, sounds like by making reference to his other musical influences. In addition to Taylor and Benson, Dikongué cites calypsonist Harry Belafonte, French chansonnier Charles Aznavour, and Brazilian tropicalista Gilberto Gil as major inspirations. Growing up in Cameroons, Dikongué also absorbed makossa, the dominant brand of popular music there, and its presence is felt on Mot’a Bobe too.
Dikongué‘s voice is sweet and rich, its qualities certainly in a league with those of his influences. But his material is sharply uneven. “N’dolo”, the opening number has all the charm and beauty of the accordion-driven café music that Cesoria Evora does so brilliantly. “Yadi La Bobe” has a lilting splendor, a Cuban rhythm propelled by a vibes-sounding keyboard. Two other excellent numbers are done in a restrained, mid-tempo funk style. “Non Retour”, one of two numbers Dikongué sings in French, features reggae beats and Memphis-style horns. This subtly powerful song voices a resolution not to turn back to the past—despite the dead bodies in the river, the lost wars with women, the damage that the singer caused. “Bun’a Te” sounds most like stereotypical Afro-beat funk, but it is subtle and sweet rather than heavy and tough. The lyrics do not convey a party mood or militant self-affirmation; rather, they lament the hatred, slander, and trickery of everyday life.
Regrettably, some real clunkers mar the album. The title cut, “Mot’a Bobe”, opens with emptily sweet strings, and the vocals are punctuated by equally insipid flute and soprano sax fills. It’s an uninspired ballad that could come from anywhere. “N’oublie Jamais” is a failed attempt at a stirring ballad in memory of friends left behind in the course of emigration from Africa to France. The guest sax playing of Manu Dibango does nothing to rescue this boring dirge. Unfortunately, the song is reprised at the end of the album, in an instrumental version. “Na Sengi Oa Bwam” and “Mot’a Benama” are additional examples of how insipid and soulless Dikongué‘s brand of African “Quiet Storm acoustica” can get.
When Dikongué‘s formula works, it’s sheer brilliance, a vindication of the recent turn to Afro-pop. But the lame cuts are so dreadfully bland that it’s only possible to listen to this CD with the aid of a programming device. Too bad the producers failed to use the same judgment in editing.