Some of these musicians seem to be the equivalent of those local groups that play at the pub down the road.
Sally Nyolo has had some success with her career since she left Zap Mama, although she keeps a lower profile than the group's old figurehead, Marie Daulne. In fact, Studio Cameroon and Daulne's most recent album make an interesting contrast. Where Ancestry in Progress is westernized and focused almost entirely on the album's creator, Studio Cameroon is African and collaborative. The album jumps from one musician to another, and often Nyolo is not there at all. You can see the different characters of the two CDs in their covers. On Ancestry in Progress a woman stares forward coolly, contained and urbane, while on Studio Cameroon a woman ducks her chin, grinning, and holds her hands out, palms-up, as if she is offering you a gift that you might decide to reject. This album is modest. If you want to listen to it then that's a cause for joy, but if you don't then it's not going to force you.
When Nyolo was thirteen her family migrated from the Lékié region of southern Cameroon to France. She began her career working as a backing singer, and branched out on her own during the mid-nineties. Her solo albums have always reflected her Cameroonian background -- she used her native Eton language on Tribu and Multiculti, and the sound of Beti is built around the rhythm of bikutsi -- and on Studio Cameroon she's decided to use her international success to showcase the music of her old homeland's everyday musicians.
The artists she's chosen are not well-known, even in their native country. They're not pop stars. Some of them seem to be the equivalent of those local groups that play at the pub down the road. Everyone in the know says the band is wonderful but it never puts out a hit record, never makes the charts overseas, and so its career lives and dies within that small, passionate hometown sphere.
The Bidjoï sisters, Ndongo and Tsogo Marie, aren't even as famous as that. They're students at the school in the village where Nyolo lived before her family moved to Europe. They sing about their dead sister Chantel in a juicy little bounce that seems both ephemeral (the singing is light, accented, and girlish; the instruments ping and spronk as if they've got nothing serious on their minds) and solid as stone. This chant has the repetitive intensity of a nursery rhyme. Ndogo takes the lead and Tsogo Marie sings in the background. The notes describe "Chantel" as "a sad song" but the translated lyrics are oblique rather than outright sad --
A woman is fine when she has a sister
And my sister has failed me …
My Chantel has failed me.
My Chantel is running.
According to Nyolo's notes, "the only 'popular' band on the album" is La Voix du Cénacle, a group of eight men and women who manage to sound like a much larger choir. She sings with them on "Pek", a prayer to "the mother of all mothers". Their sound should be fairly familiar to anyone who has heard African choirs. There is one person singing in the front and the rest raise their voices hummingly at rhythmic intervals to respond to her. In this instance Nyolo is the woman at the front, but in some of the other tracks she takes a back seat. At times she is credited simply with backing vocals or percussion. On Orchestre D'Essono's "La Vie" you can barely tell that she's there at all. The floor goes over to Essono, a village balafon-maker and church-choir-leader whose band plays balafon-and-guitar bikutsi, the liquid doinks of the xylophone swelling out under the spritzy rotations of the guitar.
The most unusual balafon here appears in "Ikoat Soat", a song by a band called D'Embazo Star de Nkometou. This balafon skips along with a woody tinkety-clunk that is not at all like the Orchestre D'Essono's more demure sound. "Ikoat Soat" is a raggedy, throwabout, jumping piece of music. Someone is puffing on a whistle and you can hear him rushing to keep up with the others. It's a thankless job, blowing whistles. The more you listen to this song, the more it sounds like a band you've met in the street, trying to cheer you up. It's almost a busking sound.
But then next to this ragtag there's the Edmond Fils Nkoa Band, one of the most dignified things on the album. Their leader René even makes a keyboard sound serious, which is a minor miracle. African popular music is a wasteland when it comes to keyboards; they infect the landscape like Blake's dark satanic mills. There is also dignity in the sound of René's deep voice, which sits somewhere between South African township groaning and soul.
The other songs are the work of single people or duets. Guéyenka is described as "extremely shy" but you can't hear it in "Souris-Moi", the chuckly scat song that she and Nyolo share. Then there's a man known simply as Américain who patently isn't because he offers financial advice in a buzz of Africanised French. "Il faut faire économie", he recommends. You must be economical. "Économies pour ta retraite". Dry-voiced Roger Ngono Ayissi goes one better and suggests that you give your mother a back-rub. Mothers of musicians all over the world will be asking their sons why they can't be more like that nice Mr Ayissi.
Mr. Eddy sounds tender as he describes the feelings of a young wife who leaves her husband because he trails around after her everywhere. Gisèle Mvo Anji sings "Djim Miadjé" in a strong voice with lovely expressive depth. "Djim miadjé, djim miadjé", she croons, and you realize that something significant has arrived. I have no idea what those two words mean but she makes them sound enormously moving. It was while listening to "Djim Miadjé" that I began thinking some of these musicians deserve albums of their own.
Sally Nyolo has a nice ear for talent. Yet Studio Cameroon is not fully representative of Cameroonian music. It's biased toward the sounds of certain areas, and Nyolo's tastes tend to be traditional rather than modern, which means that some of the songs seem superficially similar. The ideas have come from the same fold. You can't go past the simple ingenuity of the idea though, this "best of the little-knowns", this direct faith in the strength of Cameroon's musicians. She trusted them and they repaid her. They win. We win. Very nice.