World Music Matters

Cameroon's Blick Bassy remembers 1958 and his fallen hero

Audio 11:38
Blick Bassy at Le Général hotel on the eve of tribute to Um Nyobè
Blick Bassy at Le Général hotel on the eve of tribute to Um Nyobè ©RFI/A.Hird

Blick Bassy’s career took off internationally in 2015 when the tech giant Apple took a shine to his subtle falsetto voice and deft banjo playing and used a clip from his album Akö in an ad. His upcoming fourth album promises to be radically different. He talks to RFI's Alison Hird about the need to "re-tell" the story of Ruben Um Nyobè.


Nyobè was the leader of the Cameroonian independence movement who was asassinated by French colonial powers in 1958.

The album is due out next spring, but Blick Bassy, who's also a writer, has already devoted a talking gig to Um Nyobè.

He brought the piece, "1958", to the stage during the recent Africolor festival alongside Cameroonian rapper Krotal and story-teller Binda Ngozolo.

Binda Ngazolo, Blick Bassy and Krotal at the Africolor festival, 1st December 2018.
Binda Ngazolo, Blick Bassy and Krotal at the Africolor festival, 1st December 2018. ©RFI/Elodie Maillot

The assassination of Um Nyobè by French colonial powers in 1958 is a sordid chapter in French history.

Nyobèfounded the Cameroonian People's Union (UPC), a party that took up armed struggle to claim full independence for Cameroon from France. He was shot in the back by French forces, his body dragged to his village and exposed, then later sunk in concrete.

For years Nyobè was portrayed as a terrorist. Under Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon's first president post-independence, even mentioning his name in public was tabou.

Bassy says it's time to tell a different story, closer to the truth.

"Ahmadou Ahidjo was put into place by colonial powers," he said, "so it was normal he towed the same political line as those who pointed the finger at people fighting for our country's complete independence.

"They were treated as maquisards [a derogatory term meaning bush fighters], people who wanted to do harm. And yet various ethnic groups and communities from that time knew very well what was happening.

"Nyobè managed to stay a long time hidden in the forest because he was backed by a large part of the population."

Statue in the centre of Eseka, Cameroon, erected with the support of minister Frédéric Kodock
Statue in the centre of Eseka, Cameroon, erected with the support of minister Frédéric Kodock ©Florettesokeng

Time to write our own history

Um Nyobè was affectionately known as Mpondol meaning "who is the voice of" in the Bassa language. Bassy, whose 20 year career as musician, writer and producer has given him a wide audience, has embraced the role of truthsayer.

"This story was written by others, so my role today is to take part in the writing of our own history. It’s up to us to write it if we want to change things, so that a Cameroonian living in Cameroon, a Chadian living in Chad, wakes up every morning saying 'I’m an incredible human being, I live in a magical place, I’m lucky to live in this place and my happiness is not elsewhere, it’s where I live'."

Seeing Nyobè everywhere

"Nyobè is my hero because I understood that this guy was talking about what Africa was actually living. He was talking about all our future issues. About [the importance of] connecting to our roots and how we really have to stop imitating what Europeans are doing."

Bassy says a desire to imitate the West, rather than developing their own more Panafrican system based on their own environment and resources, has led to an increase in tribalism in Cameroon.

"Tribalism is really coming back. In the last election in October we had a kind of dynamic coming back from tribalism; people just voting for the person who's coming from their tribe, it's not about the programme."

Nyobè, he says, fought for a greater sense of African identity, for the need to create structures and systems that corresponded to "the way we are living".

Blick Bassy backstage at Moods.
Blick Bassy backstage at Moods. RFI/Laurence Aloir

Bassa, one of 280 languages

Bassy moved to France some 12 years ago to make a career in music. He's been successful, despite, or hopefully because of, his decision to sing only in the Bassa language from the region near Yaoundé.

"Nyobé was also coming from this part of Cameroon, and I'm thinking first in Bassa and I'm building my world with this language. The other thing is our country is bilingual, French and English, and we don't have a common language but we have 280 different languages. We have to start teaching our languages, maybe the biggest ones, to our children, because I'm sure in the next 20 years, most of them are going to disappear."

Speak your own language

Bassy got a big boost in 2015 when Apple used a 15 second clip from the song Kiki in one of its ads. It came from his third, critically-acclaimed album Akö, inspired by the late American bluesman Skip James.

The 44-year-old recognises it helped his career but also thinks it should encourage African musicians to sing in their mother tongue.

"This really helped me to promote my language but also to help the young generation to trust in themselves. Because some of them are thinking that if they want to be known they have to sing in English or in another language. But having this is really showing that no you can sing in your language."

"For me the main message is you just have to be yourself and if you’re doing this in a professional way and you’re working hard to make things happen, things will happen."

Blick Bassy plays La Cigale, Paris on 15 April 2019. Other dates in US, Germany, Austria check out facebook.

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