From Live8 to Greenbelt
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Date: 06 October, 2006
After making her Greenbelt debut last year, Cameroonian singer/songwriter Coco Mbassi returned this year and played at the Christian Aid Performance Café. George Luke asked her some questions.
How did you get started in music?
I was a backing vocalist for over ten years. I worked with various artists – some of them big ones such as Manu Dibango, Salif Keita and Toure Kunda…people well known to World Music fans. I also sang in a gospel choir for years; that introduced me to both American and African gospel music. That’s how I got started.
My story’s a bit tricky. I was born in Paris; my mother was studying there at the time. I moved to Cameroon as a baby, then came back to France when I was 14 years old. From there, I lived in France until 2003 when I moved to the UK. I now live in London.
To a lot of music fans, France has always appeared to be more of a base for World Music – particularly African music – than the UK. How do the two countries compare?
They’re completely different. In France, you have this institutionalised way of considering World Music; you have to fall into very precise types. It has to be very traditional. Some of the big names I’ve worked with in the past, such as Salif Keita, made their names outside France – usually Germany. There are things happening in France, but they do tend to put you in very little boxes. My music – which mingles strings and piano with lyrics in African languages – is kind of weird for them, so I never sold much in France. I mostly built my career in Germany, which is strange.
Since coming to the UK, I’ve been given more of an opportunity to perform and show what I’m able to do – which is what I like about being here. And I have to say something here. At last year’s Greenbelt, my husband accompanied me on guitar as I sang. He was too busy to come this year, so I brought my cousin instead, who’s also a musician, to play with me. My cousin’s not a Christian, but he’s been so touched by what he’s seen here so far – so please, Greenbelt, keep it up!
You performed at Live8 last year, and were introduced onstage by Angelina Jolie. Did she and Brad invite you to Shiloh’s christening?
No – I would have loved to have gone! What I’d really like is for her to include some of my music on the soundtrack to one of her films: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or something like that.
Meeting her was all very superficial, really. It was just ‘Hi - what’s your name? Coco Mbassi…have I pronounced it properly?’ and I said ‘Thanks for introducing me.’ But it was nice, because my sons couldn’t believe it was happening!
Having said that, I do recognise her talent. And there’s a lot to be said for her concern for poor kids. There are a lot of people who earn more money than she does but don’t do half of what she does with it. I’m very happy for the Cambodian and Ethiopian children she adopted; at least those are two kids who will benefit from decent meals and a proper education.
You can’t just focus on celebrities’ bad sides. If anyone can use Hollywood to help people, then more power to them.
There’s a comment you make in your new DVD: “Cameroonian children today know more about Japanese Manga and American rap music than they do about their own culture.” In your opinion, why is that the case?
I think cable TV in Cameroon killed what little there was left of the indigenous culture. The thing is, if you’re surrounded by brothers and uncles who’ve studied and learned a trade but can’t earn a living, you’ll look somewhere else for inspiration. And videos of rappers with big cars and ‘bling’ look so enticing, don’t they?
Yes, Cameroonian youngsters today do know more about foreign cultures than their own. We’re not a very traditional country anyway; some of us can’t even speak our own languages.
We’re at a strange place in Africa; we have a lot of identity problems. You can’t go back and be a ‘traditional’ African – if there ever was such a thing – but we do need to have a serious look at our traditions and see what can be kept and what could be useful. We’re losing it all and becoming individualistic, closing our doors. Families are becoming smaller, which can only make poverty problems worse when people have no extended families to help care for them. We’re losing a lot and I’m not really sure who’s to blame.
On the bright side – what things do you see on your trips back to Africa that give you hope?
People’s laughter – that hasn’t disappeared from Africa. The smiles, the time people give you – when someone pays you a visit, stays for two hours, and then says ‘We’re just starting here! Do you want to go somewhere?’ People are just available, and that’s absolutely amazing. People are just there for you. They have time for toddlers; they’re not in too much of a hurry; they’re not shallow and focusing on people’s looks, either. That’s started to creep in, but for the most part, the people still have a lot of humanity, so that’s good.