April 29, 2013


The processes of the mind are a mystery. In the last few weeks, ahead of the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander (April 30, i.e. tomorrow), a calypso from the 1930s has been continuously popping up in my head. I have found myself singing it under the shower, and for no obvious reason. Tiger's "Money is king" (and the music can be heard here) was true in 1935, and unfortunately little has changed since those days.

Through a similar mysterious process my mind has always linked money with ... not a king, but a president. Perhaps it is because his name sounds like the lingala word for money (mbongo), or because of the many reports during his reign of his excessive wealth, reputedly gathered by dubious means (and with the aid of neo-colonial powers in France), but Omar Bongo's name immediately evokes images of large quantities of money. Omar Bongo, a.k.a. Albert-Bernard Bongo, died nearly four years ago, but still his name lives on in Gabon. And not only in the name of a town in the south-east of Gabon, but also because his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, succeeded him as president. In that respect the Bongos are not unlike royalty.....

During his lifetime Bongo has done more than enough to guarantee a place in the eternal memory of his people. Particularly through music his name has been immortalised to a degree that will take centuries to be wiped out. If you think Sekou Touré left his mark on Guinean music, go to Libreville and go through the Gabonese music archives. He was undoubtedly helped by his wife (and mother of the current president of Gabon) Marie Joséphine Kama, who after divorcing him in 1986 launched a career as a professional singer under the name of Patience Dabany. I am not quite sure of the sequence of events (and any additional info is welcome..), but it appears that Omar Bongo was instrumental in launching her career by funding the creation the group Kounabeli, of which Josephine Kaba was not only the lead singer but also the choreographer.

Many videos (here or here or here) can be found of Ms. Dabany and her group and here is just one example, from 1986, to give you an idea:

Isn't that just great?
Kounabeli, which appears to have been founded mainly in honour of the Gabonese Democratic Party, the P.D.G., seems to fall in a category of musical ensembles which is virtually unknown in the West and which seems to have countless representatives in Gabon: the groupes d'animation.
These groups consist of large numbers of women dancing and singing, - and mostly in praise of Omar Bongo or of the P.D.G.. The most popular ones are accompanied by a (small) soukous-style orchestra, but I am sure there also groups with traditional accompagnement, or even a cappella.
I would like to share two examples of the music of these groups with you. And I am well aware that the music in itself does not do justice to the experience of the live performances of these groups, which must be overwhelming...

The first example is a cassette by Kounabeli. This is probably a bootleg version of an lp from the 1980s. I remember hearing the lp-version once and being very disappointed. I found I preferred the tinny sound of this cassette. Perhaps because it accentuates the female chorus. This is especially the case in "Lessimbi", and slightly less in "Anniversaire de Bongo" (I told you..).

FG 1136

The second is from an lp from 1985, released as an own production by the group Missema. The recipe is very similar to Kounabeli's, with plenty of hip-hip-hooray-for-good-old-Omar-B..
The sound will probably be more acceptable to the average mélomane. But, if you ask me, the massiveness of the group is slightly lost in the recording. And that's really a pity, because that is the element that makes these recordings stand out among the numerous middle-of-the-mudtrack soukous albums.

Missema MI 2002

To round off this post another video, this time by a group from the Ogooué-Lolo province of Gabon. The subject of their animation is, of course, Mr. Bongo and his good deeds....

PS: I have to give it to the old dinosaur, this music is much better than that depressing King's song we are supposed to be singing tomorrow.....


Anonymous said...

Just a detail english speaking people may not catch : PDG, the initial's of Bongo's party, officially meaning Parti Démocratique Gabonais, stands also, in french, for Président Directeur Général, the equivalent of CEO (General Executive Officer)...
As a matter of fact, Bongo was one of the main figures of "Françafrique", a knickname to point the network created by de Gaulle to help France keep control over its former colonies.
There are many videos on the subject on youtube or dailymotion, most of them in french : just type Françafrique... Here's the trailer for one : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N27-863qME
In some of these videos, you can see Bongo distributing money to french politicians.
Rico from Paris

ken_yatta said...

My favorite of these albums, and I've only heard 3 before this post, is Groupe d'Animation - Kakoula Diele De Bongoville. The music is joyous, even though the songs are about the dictator Bongo. And even those across the Atlantic sang praises to him. Here's a video by Cuba's La Inda de Oriente. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHKHRBBxMBw

Thanks for the great post.

ken_yatta said...

One more thing. Just two days ago I was searching emusic for songs about Omar Bongo, with the intention to see if any of the Groupe d'Animation albums had been digitized. It's funny that you should post this now.

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

the link is down for Missema, any chance for a re-up? thanks!

WrldServ said...

A new link for the Missema album has been added.