Apple have been justly slammed recently for their slippery avoidance of tax, but one thing that they can be proud of is bringing the music of BLICK BASSY to a wider audience. Fifteen seconds of Kiki’s gentle melodic drift during their 2015 iPhone advert was all it took to endear him to a global audience, resulting in bookings that stretch through to 2017. Born in Cameroon, Bassy initially resisted the pressures to leave for Europe and forged a music career in his own country. He finally moved to France 10 years ago and put together his unique blend of guitar, cello, trombone and falsetto, which combine into something like Bon Iver transposed onto Cameroon. It has all the humanity and naked emotion you might expect from African music, but imprinted onto it is Bassy’s childhood and experiences of colonialism, his struggles as an immigrant in a sometimes intolerant country, and his fight to claim back the history and traditions of his own people. Phil Gwyn spoke to the man himself.
Bido Lito!: Your most recent album, Akö, is sung entirely in Bassa – what is the message of the record?
Blick Bassy: Mainly I’m talking about transmission between the new generation and the older one, and about education. Where I’m coming from in Africa, all the people are guides, you know, and being a guide means that you have a lot of responsibility; so I’m talking about education and the legacy that we want to give to our kids.
BL!: Is that partly a result of your education, which taught you that anti-colonialists were immoral?
BB: Yes, absolutely, because in our country people don’t have any idea of the real history of their own people… We have to start by teaching the kids the real history of guys like Um Nyobé, who was a fighter during French colonialism. I come from a tribe that Um Nyobé belonged to, and these tribes were described as killer tribes because they were fighting against the French. So in Cameroon people still think that our tribes are killers, because this is the official history!
BL!: So is Akö partly about encouraging education to claim back your real history?
BB: Exactly, yes. I want to say to people, “Man, we have to become the makers. We have to tell our story ourselves.” We still have some evidence. I was lucky enough to grow up in the village with my grandparents, and they were telling me stuff about how to live with the forest, with nature. But we took our history and we put it somewhere far away, and instead we decided to believe in something that we don’t really know. My father is a Christian. And we changed seven times – we were first Catholic, and then we became Protestant, and then we changed again… And finally, today, I’m just believing in nature and my ancestors and humanity.
BL!: I heard that you’re also writing a novel – what’s the idea behind it?
BB: The novel is really about my view of the big lie of immigration, because I’m really aware of how it is to be an immigrant, having moved to France 10 years ago. During this time I was already living in France and I was stuck in Cameroon for nine months because France denied me a visa, and I was asking to myself, “How is it possible that a guy who was born in France at the same moment as me is able to go everywhere he wants? But if I just want to go in France or the UK to make my music and to do my job, this isn’t possible for me?” When Western countries decided to colonise Africa and sell people into slavery, I’m not sure that they applied for a visa.
BL!: So do you think that young people in Africa are being sold an illusion that life is better in Europe?
BB: Yeah, absolutely. How is it possible that in Africa on TV you see information about malaria and AIDS, but they aren’t saying to the new generation, “Hey guys, paradise is in our countries! You don’t have to go and die like animals trying to get over the border because you think paradise is in France!”? Our government are really happy because then they can do whatever they want because people don’t really look at them – everyone wants to go.
BL!: Do you think that your music can play a part in spreading this message?
BB: Absolutely, because, for me, being an artist is being someone who is lucky enough to be able to relay some good news to the people, and say, “Guys, please, believe in yourselves, believe in your history, believe in what you have because you are lucky, man. OK, we have a lot of problems, but guys, you are still alive today… And now is your time!”
BL!: Is that partly why you sing in Bassa?
BB: This is one of the reasons. Also, in Cameroon, we have 260 different languages and two national languages, which are English and French. Behind the language is the link between the new and the old generations. For example, my grandfather doesn’t speak any French, so if I speak to him, I have to speak in Bassa. And if he has some legacy, some history about our roots, he won’t be able to teach me if we don’t speak Bassa. Also, in music, each language has its own intonation, and these intonations bring something new to the melodies.
BL!: Do you think that French and British colonialism had any effect on music in Cameroon?
BB: I think that you can see whether the country was colonised by France or by Britain because they’re completely different. In the countries where the French were, people were fighting to keep their traditions and their music, because the French were asking people to kill their cultures and become a new people with French culture.
BL!: It’s often argued that the French colonialists were obsessed with the idea of ‘assimilation’.
BB: Yes, and I think it’s still the same in France; they are still talking about assimilation. How is this possible? Each human is unique. How is it possible to say, “No. Don’t be African, be French”? I’m really worried about that in Africa and our music and culture and traditions; I’m saying, “Guys, just be yourselves. If you want to have a career in music, everyone can be a star on YouTube, so just be yourselves.” But being yourself is complicated in a world where we want everyone to be the same. And to be yourself you first need to know who you are.
Blick Bassy plays the North Stage on Saturday 28th May / Onstage at 17:30.