The Beat, Vol.14 No. 5, 1995
January 24th, 2011 by robert

The Vision of the Blind Poet

by Robert Ambrose

The first time I heard Akendengue, I was sitting in front of a computer in Nicaragua writing a long report in a language not my own, in a tense 1984 in intense heat, headphones on – and I had no idea I was listening to a blind poet from Gabon. I heard brilliant singing, and addictive rhythms that sounded original and kept me rocking in mychair as one day followed the next. Yet “blind poet” is practically the only description of Pierre Akendengue I have seen in the US press, an even less respectful fate than usual for a most creative African musician.

Pierre Akendengue - NandipoAkendengue was born in Gabon, the door to French colonial expansion in equatorial Africa.As a child he sang in school and church choirs, and with an uncle participated in ceremonies of the animist Bwiti religion. By age fourteen, he was composing songs and singing them on Radio Gabon. In 1964, at the age of twenty, Akendengue went to France to continue his studies. There he became blind while working towards a psychology doctorate. During his years in France, he continued to create music, and in 1973 recorded Nandipo, a classic album that broke new ground in African  music. In Nandipo and in his next two albums, Afrika Obota (1976) and Owende/Oppression (1978), Akendengue developed the musical and lyrical  themes that characterize his music.

Most of Akendengue’s songs are sung in his native language, Myene, and they draw heavily on the imagery of forest life to examine moral issues and, above all, to champion the struggle for liberty. While birds are common subjects in his songs, many are dedicated to the combattants de la liberté, Cabral, Lumumba, Guevara, Touré, Nkrumah, Malcolm X and others. Akendengue has not been ambiguous in his politics, and this militancy prompted the Gabon government to exile him in 1972. His musical stance was perfectly matched with Med Hondo’s 1986 film Sarraounia: Akendengue’s score accompanies the defeat of French colonial invaders by an indigenous African army led by a woman, Sarraounia.

Akendengue has argued that it is wrong to overemphasize drumming as the  basis of African music because drums are extensions of human voices, translating what humans say. Nevertheless, percussive rhythm is central to his music. Voices are critical rhythmic elements, combining with an array of percussion to form complex patterns that rock the listener. His own distinctive, emotive voice holds the mix together.

As time went by, Akendengue combined traditional instrumentation with elements from other African musics to create his unique style. Voice and percussion usually are accompanied by guitars, horns and keyboards. Akendengue became a competent guitar player influenced by styles prevalent in neighboring Cameroon and Congo, and he has invited noted guitarists like Jojo Rahamefy and Maika Munan to record with him. The ubiquitous zouk phenomenon reached into Akendengue’s music when Kassav keyboard wizard Jean Claude Naimro collaborated on Sarraounia.

Akendengue set up his own Ntye record label, and in 1978 released Eseringila, which won the Maracas D’Or for the best African album of the year. Four more Ntye albums followed in the next eight years: Mengo (1980), Awana  W’Africa (1981), Reveil de l’Afrique (1982), and Piroguier (1986). In these recordings, and especially on a project done for CBS Records (Mando, 1983), he extended his music to the dance hall. The musical core remained  percussion with call-and-response vocals, but keyboards and horns gained space in the mix. Mando, the first Akendengue album not produced by himself, saw the introduction of the synthesizer.

Three of the Ntye albums, Awana W’Africa, Reveil de l’Afrique, and Piroguier, have just been re-released on cd by Mélodie. They are cause for celebration, for they capture Akendengue at the peak of his creative power and still in total control of his music. They provide an excellent opportunity for newcomers to begin to explore a music rich in its complexity and poetic imagery, and for fans to replace worn-out vinyl. Piroguier, at least, has been extremely difficult to find on vinyl, even in Europe.

“Awana W’Africa” (Children of Africa) is the quintessential Akendengue cut,  and it opens the album of the same name. As keyboards, guitars and multiple percussionists lay down an infectious dance groove, Akendengue’s voice  soars on top delivering seven principles for the self-liberation of oppressed people of the African diaspora: unity, determination, collective responsibility, economic equality, courage, creativity and faith. The remainder of this album is classic Akendengue with the emphasis on voices and rhythm. Two of his usual female vocalists are spotlighted in duets with Akendengue. Awana W’Africa is the essential Akendengue album.

Reveil de l’Afrique presents the more poetic Akendengue; in the title track and in “Salut aux Anciens Combattants de la Liberté” he reads his poems over ever-present percussion and chorus. “Marie Avec” is a beautiful balled, sandwiched between “Reveil de l’Afrique” and the more up-tempo “Bomongo.” This album was not crafted for the dance floor, but it does present seriously interesting rhythm arrangements.

Between Reveil de l’Afrique and Piroguier, Akendengue produced Mando for CBS. It was a high tech, slick production geared for the international market. Piroguier continued this new dance-oriented sound. Zairois guitarist Maïka Munan, an influential participant in Papa Wemba’s last two releases, began his ongoing collaboration with Akendengue on this album, contributing to a keyboard- and guitar-driven sound more emphatic than on previous releases.

After Piroguier Akendengue was picked up by Mélodie’s Encore! label, which promptly issued the compilation cd Passé Composé (1987), while Akendengue worked on Espoir a Soweto. Passé Composé is an overview of Akendengue’s work from 1973-86, highly recommended to those who do not have the individual albums.

Espoir a Soweto is solid, modern Afro-pop. Akendengue has always drawn musicians from various African countries and from France to collaborate on his recordings. For this release, he ceded production to long-time collaborator Michel Carras, but remained as arranger. Intricate percussion and inspired vocals, as usual, and tastefully integrated synthesizer produced one of the best African releases of 1988.

The success of Espoir a Soweto led to Akendengue being signed by Celluloid, another Mélodie label and one with significant promotional exposure. The result was a departure in many ways from everything so carefully constructed before. On Silence (1990) Akendengue is limited to singing his songs. Luc le Masne, the arranger and producer, engineered a slick, synthesizer-based, Euro-Afro-pop sound that dramatically diluted the energy of Akendengue’s music. A studio band formed from session musicians essentially replaced the team that Akendengue had put together for previous recordings, including, most tellingly, the percussionists. Maika Munan returned on guitars while much of the band was European. Etienne M’Bappe on bass and particularly Michel Lorentz on synthesizer programming helped create a tame sound they would  reproduce a year later on Salif Keita’s Amen.

Silence was disappointing, and fans waited to see what would come next. Akendengue’s previous experience with a major record company also produced an album (Mando) with a commercialized sound; after its release Akendengue returned to producing his music on his own label. He is an artist dedicated to preserving the traditional roots of his music, and has actively promoted African musicians such as Samuel Ateba, noted percussionist from Gabon. One can assume that Akendengue’s goal is not to produce music that conforms to an international, homogeneous, world beat mold. Still, last year’s Lambarena: Jean-Sebastien Bach et l’Afrique was a surprise. It is a collaboration with the producer of the Mando album, Hughes de  Courson, but far from commercialized Afro-pop, it is a parallel interpretation of Bach compositions and traditional music from the Lambarena region of Gabon. The concept and packaging are avant guarde, and the arrangements by Akendengue are unique: Bach arias and fugues are paired with Gabonese percussion, and traditional songs from Lambarena are accompanied by a European classical orchestra. The disc is dedicated to Albert Scheweitzer who “realized the connection through music between Africa and Europe,” and its intent is made clear. “Through exaltation rules recover rhythm, through exaltation rhythm recovers rules.” Clearly spiritual music from classical Europe and traditional Africa are remarkably similar. But did European classical music derive inspiration from the African colonial experience, and is that an implied theme of this production? Listen and decide for yourself; this is a disc that moves the mind more than the body. The traditional Gabonese music presented gives great insight into Akendengue’s own music.

Akendengue is much more than a blind poet from Gabon. He is a powerful and expressive singer, a prolific songwriter and skilled arranger, and a scholar  of African traditional music. He is a poet, and yes he is blind; but Akendengue has a vision for a better world, and he communicates it eloquently as a musician. One only hopes that Mélodie will re-release Eseringila and Mengo so that the vision can be viewed complete.


Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa