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Music Review: Sally Nyolo and the Original Bands of Yaoundé – Studio Cameroon

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I'm afraid I'm in the position of the proverbial art gallery patron who was heard to exclaim "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like." I'll be the first to admit that I don't know a whole lot about African traditional music, especially its regional variations in areas such as the small nation of Cameroon. Fortunately most of the songs on this release, while they contain traditional elements, are really the stuff of popular music in the new genre, World Music. The music has a familiar ring to it.

If we forget hokey adventure movies featuring lots of frantic drumming and chanting, I suppose my first exposure to African music came almost sixty years ago, when my parents were listening to Americanized versions of African songs such as The Weavers' "Wimoweh" released in 1952. A decade later, artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela brought African music to North American airwaves and, pop songs like Millie Small's hit "My Boy Lollipop" introduced the rhythm of Ska to teens around the world. Since then, I've discovered the African elements that have influenced Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll Music over the decades.

Sally Nyolo is a Cameroon expatriate who had moved with her family when she was 13 to live in Paris. In Paris, she built a career first as a back-up singer and then as lead singer and finally headliner. Her work with the group Zap Mama and as a solo act earned her a degree of stardom in both Europe and America. Drawing upon her success as a proponent of African music to the world, Nyolo returned to her native Cameroon with the goal to develop the local music scene. There she set up a modest studio and sought out talented musicians across the nation. This compilation is the result.

With tracks by thirteen separate artists plus one by Nyolo herself, it would be difficult to comment on the tracks individually. Separately and together, these songs exhibit a very high quality of musicianship that's a joy to hear. This bright, lively music can't help but have a cheering influence on the listener. The high quality of the recordings belies the promotional tale that Nyolo had set up her recording studio in "a modest tin-roofed building" so that she could meet with her musicians in a relaxed environment.

In the literature, it's often unclear what is meant when music is attributed to the new "World Music" genre. If any music exemplifies this genre, it's the music on this release. While the language of the vocals is sometimes the African language of Cameroon, the lyrics often contain elements of English and French and sometimes seem to be a sort of Creole, mixing two or more of these languages in a new configuration. While at root African, the music is just as diversified, often incorporating very European sounds that bring to mind French or Spanish music with the rhythms sliding between purely Afro beats, something like Ska, and a more complex style that sounds more like Jamaican Rock-Steady or Reggae music.

The musicians appear to be playing a mix of European and traditional African instruments, bringing to the music a varied and rich sound that often defies being tied down to any specific locale. The result is that the arrangements have a depth and fullness that enriches the experience of the listener.

Even the vocals on several of the songs seem to belong less to Africa than to French popular music. What sounds most African to me in the vocals is the backing chants and choruses and the call and response that fills the space behind the lead singers. In a number of the songs, there are also powerful drum rhythms that, at least to the North American ear, evoke the sound of Africa.

I may not know much about African music, but I know what I like. I like the music on this compilation very much. Sally Nyolo and the artists who worked with her have created a delightful anthology to represent the music of Cameroon to the world. This is a release of which they should rightfully be proud.

To learn more about Sally Nyolo, go to the RFI Musique website. Unfortunately, there appear to be no clips available online at this time to give a sense of this wonderful music.

Studio Cameroon
Sally Nyolo and the Original Bands of Yaoundé
Riverboat Records/World Music Network
14 tracks

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  • Mark Saleski

    the clips at amazon are very interesting. i’m gonna have to pick up a cd of hers because i just loved Zap Mama.

  • A reader writes to tell me that: “…the fact of Sally recording in “a modest tin-roofed building” is no promotional tale, it’s the truth! I saw video footage of her recording and that’s exactly what it is. There was nothing in it except four walls, the tin roof, some mics and some rudimentary recording gear.”

    This just makes the high quality and clarity of these recordings all that more amazing.