The music industry in North America likes things to fit into neat little compartments, so if you're from Africa they want you to play what they would consider "African music." It seems to have escaped the notice of most people that Africa is a rather large continent made up of a huge number of diverse cultures. It's not like North America, where, no matter what Canadians might claim, two out of three countries share one culture, and the third (Mexico, for those who don't remember) is only able to maintain its identity due to the fact they have their own language. So while you might be able to say something is American when referring to North America, you really can't say something is African. I'm not sure how much somebody in Egypt even has in common with somebody from the Cameroon or South Africa.
It was in late 2008 when I conducted an interview with Frances Jocky who was originally from the Cameroon and was now living in New York City. Growing up he had been exposed to music from all over the world and saw nothing odd in the fact that he really liked Dolly Parton and Jackson Brown. It was only when his family moved to Paris (France, not Texas) that he discovered he was supposed to be listening to "Black" music, and was shocked to realize that people weren't comfortable with him asking where he could find the latest Dolly Parton disc. For those who've not heard his music, it reflects his interests, and is a great mixture of pop, soul, and R&B; hardly what most would consider "African."
This turned out to be a serious problem for him when he came to North America as one label interested in him wanted him to be more "African." I've often wondered what they meant by wanting him to sound, or be, more African. Did they want him to sing in one of the many dialects that are spoken in the country of his birth? Did they want him to sound like bands from South Africa? (Which may be the case because they said they saw him as the next Hugh Masekela, the famous South African jazz trumpeter.) The trouble is, that's not what he was interested in doing at the time, so he never signed and continued to do his own thing.
Times change and so do people's musical interests and Jocky is no exception, and his latest release finds him turning to the land of his birth for inspiration. Elephant: An African Tale isn't available through a label as of yet and can only be purchased through the disc's website. However, that isn't a reflection on its quality or Jocky's talent, as this disc not only shows off his talents as a musician and a songwriter, but his production skills as well.
Elephant: An African Tale is an autobiographical song cycle in which Jocky recounts his own journey from the Cameroon to New York City. The elephant of the title is the symbol of the indomitable courage required of the tale's character to achieve his goals and overcome the obstacles that life and circumstances put in his way as he struggles to come to adulthood and realize his dreams. Sung in a mixture of English and what I believe to be the language of the Duala people of the Cameroon (the credits aren't clear about this, but on the website there is reference made to an annual celebration of the Duala people, the N'gondo, and one song is called "Kaba N'gondo"), the songs take the listener on one person's odyssey, while conveying universal truths about the hardships faced by immigrants around the world.
The story begins on the Cameroon savannah, where young Sombol makes his daily way to school. One day he is diverted from his path by the sound of an elephant breathing and when he comes face to face with it, the elephant's spirit enters his body and Sombol falls into a deep trance. Although Sombol is recovered by people from his village, the ordeal of losing and then finding his son again was too much for his father and he dies. While they were once a well regarded family in their community, with the death of her husband, Sombol's mother finds her former friends and neighbours fall away, leaving her alone to deal with her grief and raising her four children. Putting aside her own sorrow she makes the decision to take her family away to start a new life. You can put an obstacle in an elephant's path, but his spirit will always triumph — he will always move forward.
The symbolism of the elephant's strength and endurance is a common thread throughout the entire song cycle as we follow young Sombol as he comes of age in France. He find solace from the hardships of life by hanging out in the local jazz clubs and throwing himself into his music. Deep within himself the spirit and breath of the elephant continue to supply him with the resolve to overcome obstacles and push forward in life. Eventually the story comes full circle as his son has his own encounter with an elephant in a zoo in New York City and eventually returns to his father's homeland where he heads up a study of the wildlife of the savannah.
With the exception of "One World," which pays tribute to Bob Marley's "One Love," all the songs on Elephant: An African Tale are either written or co-written by Jocky, and he plays the majority of the instruments on the recording. However, he also has the sense to draw upon outside help when needed, as is shown by having his mother write the lyrics for "Wase," the song describing what the mother in the story experiences upon her husband's death. Not being able to understand the lyrics we have to rely upon the synopsis of the songs provided on the project page of the disc's website to follow the story line. However, that doesn't prevent their emotional content from being conveyed through the music and Jocky's ability to communicate meaning through his song and music. There's an emotional power and depth to these songs that has to be heard to be believed.
What's most impressive about the music is how it continually conveys the message of the elephant. We can feel the strength of resolve that must be required by any person trying to make a new life for themselves. Whether the difficulties they face are those of the immigrant dealing with prejudice and poverty, or emotional barriers from their past, starting anew is a daunting task, and Jocky has managed to bring the experience to life with his music. He has called upon his own experiences to create something universal that no matter where you come from or who you are, you'll be able to relate to on one level or another. There is a power in his music that enable it to overcome language and speak directly to the listeners heart. While that may sound like a cliche – music knows no language – in this case it happens to be the truth, as you can't help but be moved by what you hear on this disc.
I don't know if Elephant: An African Tale would qualify as African music according to the folk at that record label years ago who wanted Francis Jocky to sound more "African." What I do know is that you'll not be able to listen to it just once. There's something wonderfully compelling about the recording that will have you playing it over and over again. Which, no matter where it comes from, is a sign this is something really special.