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Ben Decca - Makossa back on the dancefloor

True to its name, Ben Decca`s latest album, Makossa phœnix, has seen the Cameroonian makossa star rise from the flames once again. Indeed, in recent weeks, the album has taken Douala`s club dancefloors by storm. RFI Musique looks back on Decca`s care


04/05/2006 - 

True to its name, Ben Decca´s latest album, Makossa phœnix, has seen the Cameroonian makossa star rise from the flames once again. Indeed, in recent weeks, the album has taken Douala´s club dancefloors by storm. RFI Musique looks back on Decca´s career to date.


"Who hasn´t heard of Ben Decca in Cameroon?" enthuses Michaël, a 25-year-old Cameroonian fan, "It´s the most wonderful Douala music, the kind no-one makes any more. I grew up listening to singers like him!" Michaël can rest assured – they´re still making Douala like they did in the good old days. At least, Ben Decca is at any rate! In recent weeks, Decca´s velvet tones have been getting clubbers grooving on the dancefloor in discos right across Cameroon´s economic capital, Douala. Grâce Decca´s elder brother is definitively back in the news with Makossa phœnix, his nineteenth album in a career spanning twenty-five years.

"I arrived in the music world like a hair in a bowl of soup," Decca claims, flashing a broad grin. The budding young musician was a student at the time, completing a college course in France. One night a friend happened to hear him sing and his fortunes changed from one day to the next. "My friend thought it was a pretty good song," recounts Decca, "and he offered to record it." But Decca turned down the offer, knowing his father would be furious if he found out his son was neglecting his studies to make music. The friend insisted they could find a solution and persuaded Decca to record an album, promising it would be released without his face on the cover. The album came out at the end of 1981 – featuring a close-up photo of the singer. "And all hell broke out," recalls Decca, "My father took it all very badly, of course. But with time he finally came to accept my career."

Decca senior certainly had time to come to terms with his son´s chosen profession. Twenty-five years on from that debut album, Ben Decca has established himself as one of the leading voices of makossa (a vibrant sound from the coastal region of Douala). The singer actually left his homeland long ago to live in France, but he recounts how he made an attempt to settle back in Cameroon in the ´80s. "There were a lot of political problems at the time," he explains, "and the economic situation was really bad so I was forced to go back to the Paris suburbs." Decca remains firmly attached to his Cameroonian roots, however, spending several months each year in rue de la Joie, in Deido, the family neighbourhood where he grew up. "Deido´s the last surviving village in Douala. The rest of the city´s become really cosmopolitan now, but Deido´s still got its own sense of brotherhood and fraternity. We´re practically all cousins, in fact! For a long time, people used to claim that everyone that lived in the neighbourhood was a gangster. But in reality we just didn´t want anyone treading on our toes. It was only in the ´80s that locals accepted the presence of a police station!"

The Music of Love

This anti-establishment stance did not work its way into Decca´s songs, however. The singer, whose rich, deep vocals recall those of Papa Wemba, insists that "Makossa is very much a regional sound – it´s a music of love!" The songs on his new album, Makossa phoenix (the majority of which are written in Douala with a smattering of French here and there) certainly appear to confirm this, almost all of them making some reference to women and relationships. "There´s no such thing as perfect love," Decca sings on one ballad, "Its past is never simple, its present is imperfect and its future is always conditional!"

Another song on Makossa phoenix evokes the memory of the singer´s father, who died three years ago. Now and again in the course of the past twenty-five years, Decca has delved into more political subjects. "I made a ´protest´ album eight years ago," he says, "but it was censored. On it, I said that if we started reasoning in ethnic terms instead of as a nation, we´d have nothing left in this country. These days, I really think that the Cameroonian people´s acceptance of things has gone way beyond the norm. You can go round denouncing things all you like, but the situation doesn´t change. It´s no use fighting…"

While Decca appears to have ruled out fighting for social and political change, he remains an ardent defender of makossa - even if he does confess to a certain weakness for the blues. Over the years, the boy from Deido has made the style his own by adding a touch of rumba in the final mix, but he remains loyal to makossa´s founding spirit. Makossa greats such as Etienne Mbappé and Guy Nsangue guest on Makossa phoenix and the album´s title track is intended as a "tribute to those who made makossa what it is today!" (They include Nelle Eyoum Emmanu and Eboa Lotin). "Makossa has won audiences over in the past – and it will keep on winning audiences over," he insists, "Some musicians have deformed makossa over the years, but the purists are still there, so I´m not too worried… Makossa´s like ndolé. Saying it´s over is like saying ndolé is no longer one of Cameroon´s national dishes!"

As for coupé-décalé, the hot new style from Ivory Coast that has taken off in Cameroon´s clubs in recent months, Decca dismisses it as a temporary fashion fad. "It´s a sign that the local Cameroonian music scene is not so healthy right now," he says, "And that´s partly due to the pirates. Imagine, just a couple of days after my album was released, pirate copies were already in circulation. Another problem is Cameroonians haven´t understood that you have to accept the notion of ´cultural exception´ like they do everywhere else. The day we grasp that, believe me, a lot of things will start changing." Everything but the essence of makossa, we hope!

Fanny   Pigeaud

Translation : Julie  Street

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Remember Moamar Kadhafi


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