Bikutsi - Cameroonian Hyper Disco
A Record I Fell In Love With…. Ngon Midjon by Etranger.
Written by Matt Stancombe.
Meaning “let’s beat the earth”, bikutsi is the less familiar cousin of makossa, both born in Cameroon and essentially both dance music. Bikutsi comes from the Beti people and traditionally is a phase in a gathering for a wedding, funeral or party, the first phase discussing spiritual matters and the latter (bikutsi phase) relating to real-world problems. As is the case everywhere, this tends to be more comedic in nature, talking about partners, neighbours and the daily life soap opera.
Ever since Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa record hit dance floors worldwide from the Loft to the Shrine, Makossa has been at least a familiar word, always popular in its native country and throughout the African continent; even in recent years, this type of music has benefitted from the resurgence in African dance music incorporated into the electronic dance music continuum and exotic/tropical/esoteric party crowd, typically hosted by now world famous DJ’s like Hunee and Antal, Floating Points, Four Tet or Daphni. This is due, in part, to the internet’s explosive connectivity making every record ever produced within easy reach (for a price!). Names such as Michot Dhin and Bill Loko, Pat’ Ndoye, Eko Roosevelt and Sam Fan Thomas often have high price tags attached to their releases featuring their makossa sounds.
Bikutsi, on the other hand, has been somewhat ignored by the trend for purchasing “anything” African with a disco beat and I suspect only due to its unfamiliarity, as the music itself seems to me primed and ready for peak-time modern dance floors. It’s fast, it has a strong beat, dancing is it’s raison d’etre and the later period productions feature the synths and far our sounds that drive dancers into a trance. Even in it’s earliest forms, bikutsi utilized the universally loved balafon with intelligent and life affirming percussion, later adding keyboards and guitars. That’s not to say it’s completely unknown and of course, those in the know – know. Champions of the Islands gold rush, Invisible City Editions listed a record by Govinal N’dzinga-Essomba in amongst one of their early “shopdates” describing the sound as a “Really insane hyper LP from Cameroon” providing “More hypnosis for the dancefloor”.
I really am far from expert in these sounds, but Nico Skliris is, with Julian Achard of the famous Digger’s Digest record label and shop. The pair were responsible for the popular Digital Zandoli compilations and - along with others (note the long-running “Zouk Nostalgie” YouTube channel) - have helped repopularise the previously maligned (due to ignorance, as usual) Zouk music. So, it comes as no surprise that Nico has also been providing some of the better bikutsi records to his discerning clientele, alongside a multitude of other interesting local artists in Gwo Ka, Biguine, Chanson and even Greek traditional. Migration to France from Cameroon meant that the music travelled with and it’s obvious to see many bikutsi recordings appear on French record labels along with makossa and zouk.
So to the music, and an impulse purchase (and let’s face it, record collecting culture is essentially a capitalist pastime), based on an exuberant seller’s hype-sheet description brought home one of the more unusual pieces of music I had up to this point been aware of. Number one, I liked the sleeve – dirty and insect-chewed, the artists’ portrait (typical of many releases of the period) and bright coloured text in a bold font creatively built around the image. The vinyl looked fucked, G+, but the seller had graded well and I wasn’t disappointed in this case as only pennies had traded hands merely on a curiosity. Most average sellers will under-grade vinyl simply as they cannot be arsed with the hassle of dealing with returns from overly optimistic buyers. Indeed this was the case and my new purchase played well, just a touch of occasional background hiss and the odd rice crispie. Listening to the LP, all four tracks were great with dance floor play-out potential, but in this case, the hype had been “on-the-money”. Two of the tracks, in particular, take us straight out into the stratosphere, not coming down, and leaving us breathless. I can’t quite believe my luck, it’s what we all want - a totally unknown, mind-blowing killer dance album full of outrageous sounds like nothing heard before.
The first thing you do, of course, is hit the internet and try to find any other copies (no luck) or anything related to the artist or label. The label, according to the Discogs bible, suggests only three releases – Nson Ngon Musik. The artist proves more useful; Etranger (Etienne Ohandja) and Les Tetes Brulees. The former, also known as Mama Ohandja was prolific and Les Tetes Brulees were the premier modern bikutsi band credited with popularizing the style by moulding it with a pop sensibility. That said, nothing quite comes close to the releases on Nson Ngon Musik. The other releases on the label by Mballas Rogers and Ange Ebogo Emerent compare favourably to the first release by “Etranger”, the basslines in particular on the Mballas Roger’s LP are outrageous.
Following up these two artists proves fruitful and both their bodies of work add fire to the bikutsi cannon. Down the wormhole and I find Nkodo Si Tony to be another bikutsi stalwart creating the sound I’m searching for (no coincidence him popping up on the well-received “Pop Makossa” compilation curated by the mighty Analog Africa label). I mentioned previously Govinal Ndzinga-Essomba and his release on Tessy records – a catalogue with much to be proud of so much so that I religiously hunted down every available release, those by Jean Aladin Bikoko for bikutsi and Albertson Mben’s and Moise Doumbe for some crazy makossa, Samson for his techno-like Chaud Gars and equally brilliant Sack Mandeng. Hell, I’m still exploring and you should too. In short, as with any music – open your ears and you’ll be surprised and delighted. The African continent has so many jewels that have until recent years remained difficult to observe, being reliant on gatekeepers who view the world through their own prism unaware of the opportunity to inhabit different worlds at many and the same time. Get down that YouTube Wormhole (but remember to come up for air – hopefully in a record shop!).
Geek on, dudes.