The Beat, Vol. 15 No. 6, 1996
January 24th, 2011 by robert

Pierre Akendengué: Healing Africa

Interview 13 July 1996, by Robert Ambrose

Pierre Akendengué was in Quebec recently during a rare visit to North America by the Gabonese poet/musician. From the log cabin studio of KTNA-FM in Alaska, I talked with him about his new release Maladalité, aided by my friend and impromptu interpreter Jean-Pierre Panziera, who was connected by phone from Palo Alto.

I first asked what “Maladalité” means, and Pierre explained that it is a word he coined by combining the French words malade and alité, meaning “sickness” and “in bed”. Maladalité (sick-in-bed) is, in his opinion, an apt description for the state of modern Africa and Africans. We pick up the conversation as Pierre begins to expand his analysis:

Akendengué: You cannot cure a disease unless you can give it a name, so now that everyone knows what the disease is (maladalité), people need to wake up and start fighting the disease. It requires collective and individual action from everyone in Africa to recover the vital source and recover from maladalité. This is a normal reaction of living beings and what is required to get back to health.

Robert Ambrose: Is the sickness the colonial/post-colonial objective conditions, or is the sickness in the mentality of Africans, the way of thinking of Africans?

Akendengué: There are double causes. Bad is in every person, the good and bad coexist. And it is the bad side that has been ascendant in Africans. Now it is important that every African individual realizes what is happening and fights back so the good side takes over.

The second cause is a balance in the African identity. All people that are colonized have two possible reactions: assimilation of the colonial model or the complete rejection of that model. The colonizers always negated the African personality and actively tried to assimilate Africans. To the point that until recently Africa was no more than an exotic background (“the savage”, folklore, etc.) for colonial economic and military actions.

That is why now all Africans need to realize that the bad side has been ruling Africa until recently, so that the good part can take over and fight back. Voila the double cause, internal and external.

RA: I reviewed Maladalité for The Beat magazine, and wrote that it is similar in essence to your earliest records: “Akendengué the poet.” Do you feel it is a return to your essence as well?

Akendengué: Yes. The essence of the artist is to keep the promise of fidelity to himself, and that is why in Maladalité one hears the echoes of the first records.

RA: And this was a big change from Lambarena?

Akendengué: Not really, the songs I was writing in Europe, in France, perhaps were moving from an artistic point of view, and they were probably beautiful songs in their abstract form. But the fact that I lived a long time in Europe cut me off from the fecundity that grows from the African reality. Lambarena was a mixing of traditional Gabonese song and the music of J.S. Bach.

RA: Right. In Lambarena the vocals. . .

Akendengué: Notice that Maladalité is similar to Lambarena, for example the use of chorus which integrates traditional African singing with Western classical technique.

RA: Exactly, I thought there was a good contrast in Lambarena between the Gabonese chorus and the western European chorus. But in Maladalité the African chorus itself has incorporated classical arrangements.

Akendengué: Yes, simply because in Lambarena the listener had to recognize the music of J.S. Bach on the one hand, and the traditional Gabonese on the other. Maladalité is the creation of an artist, and while not perfect, it is a reflection of how I am feeling – what I am right now. As it [Maladalité] is my own creation, I am able to mix the music in a different way, still respecting the traditional way.

Maladalité was a search for symbiosis between the world in which I live (the African world, from which I have tried to escape) and an abstract one, in order to make something beautiful. Because daily African life is not beautiful. The artistic creation consists of transforming that reality, which gives essence to inspiration, into something beautiful. This creation [Maladalité] draws on the cultural values of other peoples, from Europe and the Americas. In the domain of giving and receiving, this is a good example of what we Africans can give to others, and what others can give us, to make a better world, a human species without distinctions.

RA: How does that relate to our discussion of maladalité, where there were two possibilities: either assimilation or rejection of Western ways. Is this a middle road, or is this not assimilation?

Akendengué: It’s true that the two cultures can coexist in my head in some way, but this is not assimilation because the relationship between the two cultures is primarily one of conflict. The effort that each one of us must make is to take a step towards the other culture even though it might be painful. For me it’s a matter of an African domination into which I integrate positively what others have given me.

In contrast, the colonial project was to assimilate us, to impose a European model and to negate the African personality. Now there is a need to understand that Africa has a personality of its own.

It’s not our project to deny Western or other cultures, but to bring to them the best we’ve got. The artistic project is about beauty, but beauty includes both the despair and the hope of human beings. When an artist puts his work at the disposal of an audience, it serves simultaneously pain and freedom.

RA: Obviously that would be your opinion of your role as a poet and musician in modern Africa. Do you think that should be the role of other prominent African musicians?

Akendengué: I don’t want to give lessons to anyone. It is the path I have chosen. I want to be a champion of trust, of trust first in God and second in traditional African culture. If all technological projects escape Africans because they come from outside and can’t be mastered by us, we certainly can master our own culture. It is something we can use, trust, and have faith in. This is a way to fight the current situation where people in Africa are just consumers of imported products from the Western world, a way we can produce something of our own.

RA: The jump from Silence to Lambarena, and then Maladalité, was radical, and abandoned some of the dance-oriented music of earlier albums. Does that change coincide with your return to Gabon?

Akendengué: Absolutely. When you create far from your original society and culture, you might create something beautiful, but it is just an experience separated from the original source of fecundity, your cultural reality. When I came back to Africa, I had to relearn Africa, and the answer to this readaptation is Lambarena and Maladalité. I realized with Silence that suddenly my inspiration from being in Europe had ended, and that I also had no African inspiration.

RA: What year was that?

Akendengué: I returned to Gabon in 1985, and then became ill for three or four years. I couldn’t readjust to how I was in France and I couldn’t readjust to. . . when I was living in Gabon. It took time to relearn my Gabonese milieu before I could express myself.

RA: You lived in France for at least 20 years, at least some of them while in disfavor with the government of Gabon. What changed in Gabon that allowed you to return?

Akendengué: Yes, 20 years. One of the main requisites for an artist is a commitment to the truth, and after twenty years of singing Africa in France and Europe, I realized that I did not know the Africa I was singing about. I had to go back.

Even though I suffered a great deal, physically and spiritually, on my return, I had to return. I found myself in a very difficult social situation when I returned to Gabon: for example I had no work, I was marginalized, I had to go everywhere on foot.

In terms of what changed in Gabon, I was there when the winds of democracy began to blow, and I am very happy to have been there as a witness to see democratization, to see liberty.

RA: You can see liberty now, or in the future?

Akendengué: No, the situation (democratization) is not complete, far from it. But Africa has progressed considerably along the democratic path. Africa will see democracy.

Liberty is not given, as one knows, it’s a perpetual quest. It’s fugitive. Right now we still are not in a time of complete freedom, but every day I am happy to be part of the process of making freedom, modestly through songs, by making the process more conscious.

RA: Is Maladalité distributed in Gabon?

Akendengué: The album Maladalité is poorly distributed. No, actually it really is not distributed because of the danger posed to art, in Africa generally and in Gabon particularly, by the problem of piracy. The European (French) producers do not want to take the risk to send a disk that will reproduced by 100 or 1000 copies on which they will get no return.

RA: So how does your work influence what is going on in Gabon?

Akendengué: To the economical problem of piracy, you need to add the old guard forces that resist any progress. It is a form of censorship that does not exist obviously, but it is still there. The work I need to do to help the good side conquer the bad, I do in the field with concerts.

RA: Do you have other work, a job apart from singing?

Akendengué: A problem in Gabon is the need to build a professional structure, a theater, for example, in which to perform. When I returned to Gabon and was ill, I had time to think about it and to start a school called The Crossroads of Art. This school had free admission which would allow any young person to learn how to perform on the stage. This was possible through the help and generosity of the French Cultural Center, as it was located in the Center’s building. The school lasted from 1988-1993, until there was a change at the head of the French Cultural Center, which became more interested in French culture than real culture.

In parallel with my activity with the school, I was asked to be an advisor to the Ministry of Cultural Work, and now to the Presidency.

RA: What projects are you planning for the future, and are you helping folkloric groups with recording projects?

Akendengué: My dream at the moment is to produce an album with my brother, my dear friend and collaborator on my first albums, Nana Vasconcelos.

My pet project is to record all the bird songs (in Gabon) and the traditions that relate to bird songs. I started last year and recorded bird songs from three provinces, and also people telling the legends about birds and singing songs about them.

RA: Birds have always been in your music. What is so special about birds?

Akendengué: In southwest Gabon where I come from the world is made up of five elements: the earth, the humans, the animals (with subgroups birds and animals), the world of the ancestors, and the world of the spirits. In my home, it is said that the world of the human being is most connected to the world of the birds. In fact, when offerings are made to departed ancestors, it is observed that it is the birds that come to the offerings, not the animals.

Independently of this conception of the world, birds have always interested and inspired me, and they have been my singing teachers.

In all the work I have been doing I have come across fabulous material. It’s extraordinary! For example, in the countryside there is a bird that sings the time of day, and by listening to the bird you can know exactly the right time, as you can check against your watch. And then there is the bird ezenghe which announces the arrival of a foreigner. And another that warns of bad things about to happen. . .

There is incredible wealth in the bird songs and in peoples’ songs about birds, and my dream is to record them all and make an album. (Laughs) This is just a dream because I don’t have any resources to make the album. (Laughs).

RA: The next time you hear ezenghe the it might be me coming to visit and listen to the birds of Gabon.

Akendengué: (Laughs) I’ll be listening very carefully for ezenghe!


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