Interview with Patricia Essong - Soul of Nu Bantu
Flashmag: Hello Patricia, Flashmag and its readership are happy to have you as the guest star this month. The time of this interview, the gallery is yours.
Patricia Essong: Hello, thank you, I am delighted to be your guest this month/
Flashmag: So first, what brought you to the music?
Patricia Essong: In fact, the music I have been involved with, since my childhood, it’s a cliché to say it, because we often hear it from artists, but what I would say, is that I had a preference for dance. I loved to dance my father was a great dancer and when I was young my mother used to take me to dance competitions, I really bathed in that environment ... Later in high school I continued in the same vein still hanging around musical circles, passing in TV shows of the national chain in Cameroon like Delire, or Emergence everything that concerned music really attracted me. Meanwhile this has not been linear, because at some point I had to leave the musical circles due to frustration and obligation because it was necessary that I continue in my studies.
Flashmag: Besides music what background do you have? You made probably studies, in which area?
Patricia Essong: After a diploma in general study of law in Cameroon, I left for France, where I enrolled in a private school to prepare a BTS in management of business units, then I went to a school of banking and insurance to prepare my bachelor degree, and I resumed my studies in a School of business where I obtained a MBA in strategy and consulting. I worked in this domain as a consultant for management, consultancy, and information systems for a company based in France, then I decided to stop at the end of 2015 to devote myself exclusively to music.
Flashmag: When you decide to make music what are your influences, what kind and what artists have influenced you the most?
Patricia Essong: It's very special for me, I have very eclectic choice musically. I work more with the emotion and the feeling of a song ... I was early influenced by Indian musicals; my uncle was a huge fan of Teri Kasam ... But musically I would say that Miriam Makeba remains a reference for me, because she has kept the traditional value of singing while exporting it abroad, Nina Simone for her fight, besides, the plea of both singers over the struggles the black community provided a universal message. Tracy Chapman, Richard Bona, Blick Bassy, Anne Marie Nzié, Lizz Right, Corry Denguemo, Hugh Masekela, Christine and the Queens ... for their musical sensibilities. I am very attracted to people who have a universe and atypical voice.
Flashmag: According to your biography your first attempt of vocal expression on stage was a failure, how did you find the audacity to restart?
Patricia Essong: After this episode of my adolescence, where a conductor told me that I was singing false, I was very young, and I was very shy, I was 14 or 15 at that age one does not know if she is a girl or a woman and you go to places where people share the same hobbies as you, the same passions, and thus you will be able to identify with them. This attempt to see me finally push the voice had therefore failed, by then I figured out singing was not for me so I continued my dance and my playbacks and that was it.
At my arrival in France as I explained, I had the normal course of the modern woman, yet I had the feeling that I was missing something. I had the feeling of not having done what I really wanted to do, and when the thirties came my frustration grew, I became moody. At work, I had moments of absence in meetings, my mind was somewhere else, I was singing, humming, I kept scribbling drawings, texts, images in my notebook, and when I was finally getting back to the meetings I was just wondering what I was doing there.
And finally something personal happened, and I asked myself the question whether everything I had done previously was to succeed in my life, or to succeed in life itself. To have a successful life is to go to self-listening, to what really resonates with us and not do things by material necessity. Then I had flashbacks, as I saw my life, and all its sacrifices, I backed off. Some will say that it was a crisis of the thirties but for me it was an awakening. I understood then that the first day of your life is the day you decide that your life really is yours. So I said stop. Ok, I was told that I did not sing it right, well I'll take singing lessons. And then once I returned to music it was as if everything was moving back in place, things seemed to connect, that's how I started to have proposals, I performed at a festival in Germany in the beautiful Parisian cinemas etc. Things I had never thought being able to do because I thought it was not for me. Once I had these signs which showed me that it was my way, well I pushed, I continued to work, up to now with this first musical project called Soul of Nü Bantu.
Flashmag: I listened to excerpts of your music, you sing in African languages and you have done covers of some big names in African music, why?
Patricia Essong: Laughter ... Why? I like the question because people often ask me about... I think we are all human beings and it’s important for each of us to know what is its mission on earth, hence the title of my album Soul of Nü Bantu. Soul because it’s my soul, what I am spiritually, Nü for my renewal for my rebirth, and Bantu because I come from sub-Saharan Africa and Cameroon in particular and knowing that Bantu people is quite large and it is a culture in which our grandparents and our ancestors bathed ... So I just wondered beyond making music, because it is a communication tool, what innovation I could bring.
Today when we say we're African it does not define us as clearly. Being Cameroonian has made us forget what we were before colonization. I thought if I had to release an album, first, I had to bring out what I'm really, make my Bantu roots speak through my music. Originating in ancient Egypt, the Bantu were arbitrarily dissected during the colonial era ... It's true, I do not do politics or science of geopolitics but I decided to be inspired by artists who come from that area, like Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Mbilia Bel, or Bella Below. They are Bantu musicians who left an important cultural legacy.
Today we still tend to surf in the era of time, where music is formatted to an economic model, a Western ideal ... I find it a shame because everyone should have the right to communicate about its origins, its culture through its music without barriers.
African music suddenly is not shared enough, because it stays in the community sphere, and also because we do not offer it some accessibility especially in TV radio etc. So for once, my mission despite this, is to continue what our fathers and mothers left and upgrade it to a more comprehensive way. I try in my approach to breathe new life to these songs that marked previous generations by making them discovered by new generations.
Flashmag: It is understandable that you are a musician engaged in the upgrading of African culture, however, do you think that this way will bear fruits? One has the impression that it’s not always easy to pass that message to the Android generation?
Patricia Essong: I do not think we should position ourselves on the fact that it pays or not, but as I said earlier, if it’s true that the commercial musician will be publicized because he will create around him a buzz, an effect of the moment, a jackpot. But I also believe that this trend is not enough, people also need other things, authenticity, something that speaks to their conscience or subconscious etc.
Today we have artists like Rokia Traore, Sona Jobarteh Angelique Kidjo, or Richard Bona who have established themselves, and we can say that they have good visibility, and thanks to their quality of work. And it does not matter if everyone does not adhere to your music, it does not prevent you from working and always aim for quality instead of quantity, it's my credo.
Flashmag: The music itself can be selective as some say some genre are not always accessible to the understanding of everyone. The Internal kitchen of your album how was it made? With Whom did you work in this album?
Patricia Essong: Work began in July 2014, a year and a half ago I was playing with 4, then 2 and then 1 musician who accompanied me in coffee bars, there was the bassist Maurice Biyong and then Jearian Ondo singer and guitarist with whom I sang a lot of time, a great musical meeting. Later, by the magic of meetings, I fall on Indy Dibong a guitarist who agreed to work with me in this project. After my job we would meet at home to work until all the tracks were set in pre-production readiness. Two other musicians joined the project: Just Wody Cereyron on bass, and Patrick Gorce on percussion, all three are brilliant musicians working with artists such as Tony Allen, or Angelique Kidjo ... I felt myself honored to have them in this project, it wasn’t cheer luck, everything as a purpose you know. Added to this team, Christophe Malherbe helped to put the bow in a few songs, and Lulendo an Angolan musician who added his pretty Likembé manufactured by himself in a song of the album whose title is Oya. Anyway this album is a meeting business, nothing was planned from the start, but one thing is certain, it was to be at the service of emotion.
The digital version of the album was released on February 10, and the physical version will be released on May 27, and I am currently preparing the project presentation showcase scheduled for June 13 at Sentier des Halles.
Flashmag: Why did you start with the digital version?
Patricia Essong: Because we are increasingly connected to the Internet and CDs are selling less, while the music is listened, shared, downloaded, and streamed ... this context was taken into account and it’s been 3 years since those who follow me are expecting me to produce something ... the physical output is more a matter of form, procedure, and there are still music lovers attached to the visual, and tactile of the CD that it is equally important to satisfy.
Flashmag: And if we had to talk about the album Soul of Nü Bantu, what it represents for you?
Patricia Essong: It's a Bantu songbook album despite Tajabone which is a song in Wolof. This album is an invitation to the appreciation of African values in both traditions that tend to get lost and languages in particular. To propose an album in Swahili, Wolof, Venda, Ewe, Yoruba, Zulu, Bulu etc. help to show the cultural wealth that abounds if not in the whole continent in a part of Africa.
And secondly this album is a reflection, a question mark. There is a mistaken view thinking that Africa needs external support while it is rich in everything and even its cultures. It’s our duty, us children of Africa to be inspired by it, to bear witness, to the institutions to make its image grander. Why when foreigners come in Africa nobody impose them an African language? Yet when we go abroad many languages are imposed on us and even in Africa. The African Union is there, it is perhaps time to really address the issue of African languages, that is where lays the definition of our identity and our assertion. I speak French but somehow I found normal to experience my African languages in the making this album, and I understood how important it was, so many emotions that we passed, cannot be expressed when speaking French.
Flashmag: In effect the imported religions in Africa have made a real mess this is the only continent where one has the impression that people are capable of killing each other for religions that are not theirs originally. The most important prophets are not children of the land.... Probably this mismatch with local realities does not help either ...
Speaking of languages don’t you think that French and English were established precisely because of the linguistic richness of Africa because there was a sort of consensus that has emerged with colonialism it was necessary for diverse peoples to get along? In a country like Cameroon where you were born there's no less than 280 languages don’t you think that with tribal and national egoism it is difficult to find an African language that would bring everyone to agree?
Patricia Essong: I can understand your logic, but except that before colonization how was it? Even with foreign languages there is always a conflict, Anglophones and Francophones Cameroonians do not always agree. We don’t have always to think about the conflict that may arise but see the need to converge to the same ideal, it is important to have in Africa a macro vision, not micro. In any case if we said that there was now an official language for Africa, or an official language in North Africa, South, East etc. And everyone had to learn it, do you think it would not work? Or better, reorganize, we have trends of languages, including the Bantu, there is necessarily a language that binds them since they are alike, this is done everywhere. This is not a conflict issue but a matter of priority. They imposed on us a currency. The problem is that removing a population its language to impose foreign languages is wrong, there is no surprise if we seem lost, or we tend to apologize for being there. You know even in France were the French was imposed there are nevertheless local languages that have survived include Gaelic Breton and others. Same for China everyone speaks Mandarin but there are other languages ... We need a clear political and institutional will to achieve this goal.
Flashmag: In terms of the split between French and English in your country, Cameroon, I invite you to read an editorial that our team wrote a few months ago on this scourge you will be comforted in your positions. It is often said that life without cause is a life without effect what are your ideals?
Patricia Essong: I think that instead of making our differences prevail on each other it is important to build bridges, exchange networks, reconciliations. I do not have an ideal that define individuals telling them what they should do but I think every human being on earth is there for a reason, we discover our mission and carry it out. I think the human being must be at the center of our concerns, advocate solidarity as African values and especially cultivate tolerance.
The news today is also there to remind us. Instead of cultivating tolerance difference and hatred of the other are cultivated. At the same time while we complain of our policy it is important to remember that it is our task to be the change we want to see. It is easier to change yourself than try to change others ... We complain of the policies of our leaders yet these people are like us, but with a title in addition. If we, we do not change, there is a good chance that if we were put in the place of these leaders tomorrow, then we'll do the same. I got involved in an association called O.S.E.R. Africa where we decided to make things happen by providing our support locally through seminars, training, support for young people in urban and rural areas that are increasingly likely to engage on the path of entrepreneurship but do not necessarily have the tools to sustain their activities.
Did you know for example that in France, SACEM, which protects copyright was created by private people who have decided that they had to change things? Same, for the Social Security which is the pride of a country like France today, they are lambda people who gathered at the start. So it is important that everyone get their hands in the dough, instead of waiting for others to do for us what we want. Our small actions today can become very large tomorrow.
Flashmag: Going back a little on your album Soul of Nu Bantu what goals you have set for this album?
Patricia Essong: Make it known, and to do that, I will have to make a lot of scenes, concerts, festivals ... and travel around the world and spread the good news why not (laughs).
Flashmag: In closing this interview do you have a word to the public?
Patricia Essong: Well I would say like Frantz Fanon each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it. I do not know whether to be a singer today and spread this message of appreciation of our culture is my mission but what I am sure, is that what I do today will lead me clearly to it. So I would say anyone should ask this question… do not to give up your dreams even if social realities will often make them pass in second position, we have to find workarounds, but especially do not let go, you will not have a second opportunity to be you in this life.
Flashmag: Patricia Essong Flashmag and its readership say thank you for this interview.
Patricia Essong: I’m the one who thank you, it is very nice of you.
Video Excerpts: Boya Ye
Interview By Hubert Marlin