Francis Bebey: Africa’s renaissance man and EDM king

June 13, 2012

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Electronic Dance Music is all the rage these days. I have a feeling that if Francis Bebey were alive today he’d give an approving nod. He might even crack a sly smile and think to himself, “Been there, done that.”

In the mid-1970s, Bebey recorded far out electronic dance music that incorporated African roots music, the urban makossa music from his native Cameroon, as well as Western motifs; it was all topped off with his deadpan sing/speak vocals in English, French and the tribal language Duala. He was even using the cut-and-paste composition technique that today’s bedroom artists use via digital technology. Only Bebey did it in the days of analog tape!

This stage of creativity came after what had already been a productive life of artistic expression. Born in 1929, Bebey was surrounded by music as a kid. His father played harmonium and accordion and taught young Francis how to sing. He took up the banjo when he was about 18 years old, then switched to guitar. Along the way, he studied English at the Sorbonne in Paris, gave classical guitar solos while studying journalism in the U.S., wrote poetry and novels , set up radio stations in Ghana and churned out some big hits in Africa and the French-speaking world.  But mostly he loved to compose music, and his dive into the nascent electronic music scene allowed him that freedom and control.

As his daughter, Kidi Bebey, tells it, her father’s love of electronic music started with a new organ he purchased when Kidi was about eight years old; he showed it off proudly, as if beaming over a new car. Kidi described the instrument as having a wide range of musical colors, switches and knobs, with the names of other instruments labeled on: cello, lute, violin and drums. To me, that sounds like one of those 1960s Lowery organs that many a suburban home had back in the day.

Bebey would coax all sorts of sounds out of his keyboard and mix in various acoustic instruments, including the mbira (thumb piano), Pygmy flute and marimba. Some songs had a decidedly danceable beat while others veered toward the avant garde. His songs would often employ humor to tackle serious themes such as racism. He was Cameroon’s David Bryne, Brian Eno and Giorgio Moroder rolled into one.

It’s pure fun to dig deeper and seek out the “roots” of music you enjoy. So for fans of Skrillex, Afrojack, Tiesto and other EDM bands, it’s time you discovered the music of Francis Bebey;  his sounds are worthy of glow sticks.

You can hear some of Francis Bebey’s best electronic music on the release, Francis Bebey: African Electronic Music 1975-1982.