In eager anticipation for the upcoming North American return of Cameroon's legendary Bikut-si music ambassadors, Les Tetes Brulees, AfricaSounds is highlighting one of the only comprehensive histories of Bikut-si music.  The project was undertaken during an educational arts grant - The Duke University Benenson Award - and was completed in 1997 after two years of research and field trips to Cameroon.  The project was supervised by music authority and advisor, Jean-Marie Ahanda  with the goal of creating a readable and fun study of this important and cultural music style that has often times been overlooked in Central Africa.  Since 1997, Bikut-si music has begun to receive additional coverage as witnessed by the triumphant return of Les Tetes Brulees to headline AfricaFete in New York's Central Park on July 8, 2001.  Please read on to better understand this fascinating music style from Cameroon.                              - AfricaSounds

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By Hortense & Charles Fuller   





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Bikut-si music is historically rooted in the cultural traditions of the Beti people. The Beti today comprise roughly one half million people, divided into the Ewondo, Bulu, and Eton clans. Despite subtle group differences, the Beti language is the common thread that unites these groups with a common Cameroonian identity and history. The Beti have historically inhabited villages spread throughout the equatorial forest region surrounding urban Yaoundé, and further South into neighboring Equatorial Guinea.1 More recently, the Beti’s general trend has been a steady migration into Yaoundé, Cameroon’s urban and political capital, which offers greater access to modern amenities, educational opportunities, and finally better hopes at finding a job of financial means. However, to witness Beti tradition in its purist form, the surrouding villages in the countryside still offer the best alternatives.

The Beti’s music, bikut-si, is a rootsy and brutal musical style that has evolved into one of Cameroon’s most popular forms of cultural expression. In fact, bikut-si is lately running a close race for first in popularity and has even surpassed the export-friendly makossa music of urban Douala. Yet in its ability to transform with the requirements of modernity, Bikut-si music has been able to retain much of its rich cultural and traditional heritage, refusing to abandon those elements which make up its core, thrust, and strength. It is this balance - or equilibrium - between cultural tradition and modernity which has made bikut-si music so appealing to Cameroonians, African music fans, and roots purists. Bikut-si makes for a fascinating evolutionary study, albeit one which has, until recently, been starkly overlooked by historians.

Bikut-si is characterized by its intense and instantly recognizable 6/8 pounding rhythm. It’s a beat that grabs you, grooves you, and finally overpowers you into stomping your feet rhythmically to the beat. Once you’ve heard it, it is forever impossible to mistake bikut-si for any other Central African music style. Likewise, one does not need to look further than its name for a literal definition of bikut-si. Bi is a term used by the Beti to pluralize whatever word happens to come after it. Kut is the Beti word meaning to "hit" or "pound vigorously" a solid surface in a continuous fashion. Si is Betifor the ground - or more literally cultivable land. Put together, Bikut-si means to beat the ground continuously.2 Bikut-si has traditionally been used as a form of communication, culturally tying together the Beti people through performances that exhibit tradition, group pride and solidarity. Bikut-si has historically functioned at a number of levels, ranging anywhere from small group gatherings of friends and neighbors to full-fledged ceremonies such as the funeral.3 Most important have been the village community ceremonies or rituals which have traditionally defined just what it signifies to be a Beti.

Historically, these traditional Beti ceremonies could be divided into two phases: the Ekang phase where all things imaginary or mythological are discussed, and the Bikut-si phase, where all real-world issues are brought to light.4 During such celebrations, the stringed mvet instrument (a double-sided acoustic harp with calabash amplification) is used by the Beti storytellers. The mvet functions as an oral history book, which the Beti believe was given to the storytellers by God as a vehicle to transmit knowledge to the people.5 In the Ekang phase of celebration, stories and knowledge are presented that deal with fantasy, mythology (the Beti’s Akoma Mba has traditionally been a parallel to Zeus6), and the origins of the ancient world. This Ekang phase involves hand clapping, dancing, recitations, and is traditionally an all-night affair. At various points during the sacred Ekang repertoire, balafon (njang xylophone) players break out into a more animated, impromptu, and often profane performance, signaling a shift to the Bikut-si phase were more earthly issues are discussed.7 The Bikut-si phase is traditionally very free-formed and improvised, with Beti women who dance and sing choruses to further animate the balafon music. The songs, led on by this group of Beti women, would focus on such issues as the trials and tribulations of everyday life, as well as a more imaginative repertoire of sexual taboos and fantasies which they wished to bring to light.8  The improvised and usually erotic female choruses are at the heart of the Beti’s bikut-si tradition. In the middle of such a song, "a woman would start a chorus leading to a frenzied dance or rhythmic foot-stamping, harmoniously shaking the shoulders-back- bottom-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap, in that order."9 All this was accompagnied by the others women’s screams and whistles, as well as the ever-present background of lush balafon rhythms. This profane aspect is at the very heart of bikut-si’s lyrics, and one can reoughly define the songs into a set of reocurring themes. Most notorious, as already mentioned, are those lyrics dealing directly with the erotic and sexual side of living, whether it be fantasy, societal taboo, or expressed frusterations from a Beti woman to her husband. The other themes which most often reoccurr deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday life, social satyr or commentary, and aspects of love.10 But it is the eroticism that is most notorious during the improvised foot-stamping sessions of traditional bikut-si music. 

Finally, traditional bikut-si had many important functions within the Beti’s village society. One dances this proto-bikut-si when visiting friends or relatives, at weddings, and in the everyday dealings within the business community. More formal traditions included the so ritual, the mevungu ritual, the funeral, and the blood-stirring war rhythm which called fighters to arms.11 The notorious and feared so ritual is a grueling series of tests which if passed signals an adolescent boy’s passage into manhood and away from the fears of his youth. The mevungu ritual occurs when a group of women would gather together to dance away the night, the goal of which was to abstain from having sex during those hours for 9 days.12 Finally, the cry to war dance provided soldiers with an adrenaline rush as well as physically prepared them for upcoming fights of defense or conquest.13 These ceremonies represent the crux of Beti tradition as well as Bikut-si’s function in definining what makes a Beti really a Beti.

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The development of so-called modern bikut-si music owes a great deal to the urbanization phenomenon where a steady influx of villagers migrated into Yaoundé’s urban center from the surrounding forest region. This mass exodus from the countryside was done in the hopes of securing better jobs and prosperity, often times resulting in shattered dreams. It was in the 1950’s, during this urbanization trend, that Yaoundé saw a significant increase in the presence and development of the bar scene. The bar would come to serve as a weekend hangout, often catering to various ethnic groups and offering a taste of home for the ex-villager.14 During this time bars sprang up on almost every street, boasting alluring and feminine names to entice the frustrated male client. Yaoundé bars were most often created by functionaries hoping to cash in on the profitable alcohol trade associated with the growth of Cameroon’s Brasserie Industry.15 The immense number of dissatisfied immigrants helped ensure both the bar’s and the Brasserie Industry’s thriving success. Besides for just satisfying the need to relax, drink, and escape reality for a while, Yaoundé’s bar scene also functioned by giving ex-villagers a place to call home.16  In the Beti’s case, this meant offering traditional bikut-si balafon tradition in this new and urban bar setting.

In Yaoundé, when all else hinted of colonialism and urbanization, at least the local bar could offer some culture and tradition to counteract these outside influences. Indeed, even the idea of a weekend was a colonial and thus foreign concept. But the Beti’s balafon tradition was able to transcend the seven-day-division of the week, and tie the Beti psychologically to the timelessness of their tradition.17 Thus the bars that were to thrive and remain in demand were one’s which offered this taste of home. This meant forming a regular group of musicians into an orchestra whose home was to be the Yaoundé bar. A typical orchestra would consist of 3 to 5 balafons, one bass balafon, two more balafons would play against one another, and finally other percussion instruments.18 The balafon’s unique "thonk" sound, coming from its construction of wood blocks suspended on calabashes, would allow it to function as both a harmony as well as a percussive instrument. Musicians, living in this bar environment, became notorious for heavy drinking and often times would be drunk during performance.19 This, combined with the fact that there was no formal music schools or training for balafon players in Cameroon, meant that the music lacked technique. In most cases the sound was not overly developed, and the artists knew their limits.20 Yet despite their lack of technique and training, Yaoundé’s balafon orchestras of the 1950’s stayed true to their traditions, function, and sound. An example was the Richard Band de Zoetele, which not only held tight to bikut-si’s traditional message and sound, but was also received relatively well by the public.21 The band, however, lost momentum and eventually fizzled from the scene when the call arose to modernize the orchestra’s sound.

The Richard Band de Zoetele was unable to overcome the technical difficulties of electrifying the balafon’s sound, hence giving it modern appeal.22 Thus in its purely traditional structure, the balafon orchestra was relatively short lived, and was really only a presence during the 1950’s. Because of bikut-si’s ethnic Beti identity, the balafon orchestra was subject to stereotypes created by outsiders. To such outsiders, the bikut-si sound and lyrrics came to represent all things "savage," and in many cases bikut-si was simply considered a "forest" phenomenon thus its patrons "villageoise."23 These first evolving stereotypes of bikut-si were a reflection of the clash resulting from the melding together of pure Beti cultural tradition and the colonial and religious mindset of Yaoundé’s evolving urban landscape.

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By the end of the 1950’s, bikut-si music appeared to be seriously threatened with extinction due to the demands for modernity. The traditional balafon orchestra had a veritable inability to adapt to the public’s needs. It was thus common knowledge that bikut-si’s sound was at this point stagnant, relatively uncreative, and unable to keep up with the times.24 A solution had to be found - all that could save bikut-si from imminent perish was an innovator. In Yaoundé, musicians struggled with this challenge, but their lack of technical skills, creativity, and their inability to electrify and properly record the balafon orchestra hindered all such attempts. Were it not, then, for Messi Me Nkonda Martin, now more simply known as the "father of modern bikut-si music," bikut-si would have followed it’s prescribed course into obscurity.

Messi Martin was a talented local musician whose early love for Spanish music - especially the acoustic guitar’s prominant role in Spanish music - led him to become an ardent student of the guitar.25 It might appear strange that Spanish music would be an influential factor to a Yaoundé musician until one considers that neighboring Equatorial Guinea had Spanish language broadcasts whose short-wave signals could be picked up on a radio in Yaoundé during the 1960’s. Messi Martin’s love for Spanish guitar music was coupled by the strong African presence of the rumba, as was heard on imported records from Cuba then later reconfigured as Congolese music in neighboring Zaire. These two outside musical influences were strong factors in Messi Martin’s decision to employ the guitar in a revised form of bikut-si music. Messi Martin’s stroke of genius was in his realization that there were many strenghts behind the traditional bikut-si music popularized by Richard Band de Zoetele’s balafon orchestra.26 All that was necessary was to translate this sound and message to more modern terms that would fare better in Yaoundé’s urban landscape. Since Messi Martin adored the guitar, he logically looked to it for the solution. The result, Messi figured, would be to incorporate the balafon’s sound into the electrical guitar.27 This shift from the balafon to a modern electric instrument was the link missing from bikut-si’s development, as well as the stepping stone for it’s future success and adaptability. After much experimentation, he achieved the sound he was looking for by "linking together the guitar strings with lengths of [paper] to give it a damper tone with a slight buzz."28 The result was that his electric guitar, with the proper percussive picking technique, now emitted a "clonk" or "thud" sound that mimicked the traditional balafon. Messi was thus able to imitate the sound of the balafon with his electric guitar.

The second stroke of genius that Messi Martin had was his realization that the traditional ekang and bikut-si repertoires of the Beti community could be effectively applied to a modern form of bikut-si music.29 Messi’s mellow voice combined the traditional topics of sexual and private life, social frustrations, commentary, and his own particular blend of womanizing into his modern blend of bikut-si songs. The result was immediate public acceptance, and hits such as Bekono Nga N’Konda and Mengalla Maurice emerged. These songs, given Messi’s modern touch, received continuous airplay throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.30 Messi Martin had proved that bikut-si music, given the proper boost, had the thrust to make it onto the popular music charts in Cameroon. Messi Martin named his band Los Camoroes after the giant shrimps which were sighted by Cameroon’s Portuguese colonizers. The band was a landmark in bikut-si evolution because the traditional role of the music remained while the instruments which expressed them were changed. The function of the balafon and mvet now shifted emphasis to the electric guitar, while handclaps and sanza instrumentation were shifted to the synthesizer.31 Finally, the crux of the Bikut-si rhythm - the 6/8 pounding of feet - was now allotted to the drum set and other percussive instruments. Messi Martin had in one step transformed the entire balafon orchestra to modern terms, giving a previously stagnant but rhythmically potent bikut-si new and intriguing appeal.

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The period spanning 1980 to 1985 signified the development of Cameroon’s music industry and electronic media development. The media’s rapid development during this time had a significant effect on two of Cameroon’s primary and evolving music styles: the blossoming makossa music of Douala and the undeveloped bikut-si music of Yaoundé. It was during these five years that each style staked out its territory and established its own unique identity. Due to this evolution, makossa and bikut-si would, in terms of style, clientele and image, wind up representing completely opposite ends of the spectrum. 1980 began as a landmark year for makossa music, as it saw the official development of L’Equipe Nationale de Makossa, or the National Makossa Team.32 This was a joining together of some of Douala’s premier makossa singers and stars, such as Ben Decca, Guy Lobe, Dina Bell, Grace Decca, and Ndedi Eyango into a solid artistic core of direction and leadership. The Equipe formed with the backing of the top session musicians of the time - Toto Guillaume on guitar, Aladji Touré on bass, and Ebeny Donald Wesley on drums. The new makossa team was also able to form ties to Paris that would assure greater production, technical quality, and international exposure than before.

The reality of this event was unparalleled in makossa’s evolution because it signaled not only a more youthful and organized form of the music, but also the explosion of Cameroon’s music on the African and Paris scene. First rate musicianship produced hits which in turn allowed international touring by the artists. Makossa, taking as its influence the rumba from Cuba and Zaire, as well as disco from Europe and America, at once developed a slick and Latin-tinged image which could appeal across ethnic lines. Makossa’s success allowed it to evolve as a music representing social comfort, urban mentality, and cross-ethnic solidarity.33 This image appealed to fans at home and abroad, and ensured makossa’s national and international success, as well as its continued representation in the top night clubs. Bikut-si likewise continued to stake out its territory and reputation, although it would not see its boom in development until the second half of the decade. Where-as makossa (and later Martinique’s zouk music) became known as the chic and popular music of Cameroon, bikut-si continued to represent to some "savage" and "forest-like."34 The lack of an Equipe Nationale de Bikut-si, as well as the finances and access to the international scene, did indeed keep Yaoundé’s bikut-si artists rooted to home soil. Thus bikut-si musicians came to represent, as a stereotype, the inner-territory of Cameroon, and the lack of opportunity and travel projected a lack of drive and adventure to the music.35

Bikut-si was also struggling more with an inability to cross ethnic and urban lines. Bikut-si’s frustrations did not stop at this level of image problems. Musicians, who remained concentrated in the Yaoundé region, continued to struggle with technical and creative advances, as well as an amelioration in terms of production, promotion, and marketing of the music. The 1982 development of the K7 (or audio cassette) hinted at new opportunities in this realm of production. Once the technology was allowed to further develop, it would offer greater portability as well as ease of production to the music.36 It would also develop a wider appeal than the LP, and give rise to a threatening scene of piratization within Cameroon. The greatest hope of the cassette’s introduction was that it would allow producers to leap-frog over the requirement to send recordings to Paris for pressing and production.37 If production could take place entirely on home territory, then so too could costs be kept down. On the recording side, bikut-si studios were still inferior to those of the makossa musicians, poor sound quality being the immediate result.38 During this period, questions still overwhelmed the answers in terms of bikut-si’s production problems. Bikut-si artists meanwhile were busy trying to develop the sound of bikut-si by experimenting with instrumentation and style. Early on predecessors to Messi Martin tried relentlessly to add something new to the bikut-si equation. Elanga Maurice added brass to his bikut-si style, while Nkondo Si Tony added electric keyboards and synthesizers as well as tried to improve the recording techniques used in traditional instrument recording.39

The group Les Veterans were to become one of the biggest new stars on the bikut-si scene, combining a cool, almost easy listening bikut-si beat to rumba influenced guitars and brass.40 Their series of recordings received considerable attention and Les Veterans became one of bikut-si’s all-time best known orchestras. Mekongo President introduced his blend of bikut-si jazz, combining complex harmonies and arrangements. Other notable names at that time included Otheo, Titans de Sangmelima, Ange Ebogo Emerent, and Seba Georges.41 Around 1984, a new wave of musicians entered the limelight, including old-time Los Camoroes member Sala Bekono (this time on a solo career), renowned rumba guitarist Zanzibar (who would join Jean-Marie Ahanda to form Les Têtes Brulées), and a talented bassist named Atebass. This surge in musicians who were willing and able to play and advance bikut-si to their preferences meant that there was something bubbling on bikut-si’s horizon. Then in 1985, Cameroon saw the introduction of CRTV, the government run television network that became a significant landmark in the development of Cameroon’s music industry. From the moment of CRTV’s introduction and onwards, Cameroon’s music industry would never be the same.42 Television introduced a new medium over which artists could express themselves and their music, and if they were creative enough, even forge an image and hence a nation-wide identity for their group. Overnight, television shows such as Elvis Kemayo’s Tele-Podium were to air, broadcasting to a virgin public music videos that combined the makossa beat and images reflecting makossa’s bourgeoisie image.43 Initially, it was makossa that was able to transform itself from a music-only form into and audio-visual product. The immediate result was that makossa not only increased its marketability, but also introduced the concept of the musician as a spectacle and visual entertainer, popularly known as the "makossa-man."

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It was shortly after the dramatic 1985 launching of CRTV and its subsequent music video broadcasts that bikut-si finally got the break into national exposure that its musicians had been striving for. Although makossa was at a high point in popularity, it appeared that much of the initial spark and creativity was beginning to be forsaken for commercialism and repetition. Jean-Marie Ahanda, a journalist for the government newspaper Cameroon Tribune who had recently returned from an extended sejour in France, saw this reality of vast inequality between makossa and bikut-si music.44 Where-as makossa had achieved its success and was cresting on a wave of popularity that was bound to break, bikut-si music had developed out of the limelight, literally unnoticed except by those who patronized the Yaoundé bar scene. Jean-Marie realized the vast unexploited potential of bikut-si - a music that despite the public prejudices had a vitality and roots tradition lacking from the other Cameroonian music styles.45 Taking time off to visit the countryside and in effect realize the full richesse of the Beti heritage, Jean-Marie was able to focus on the crux of bikut-si’s cultural strength.

By noticing bikut-si’s previously unexplored uniqueness, as opposed to makossa music, Jean-Marie was able to determine just how bikut-si could stage a rise to public attention and acceptance. Bikut-si’s secret to sucess, he determined, was in the realization of its traditional strenths, and playing on such strengths in an outright attempt to challenge makossa’s musical dominance in Cameroon. Previously, bikut-si had lacked expert musicians, proper artist promotion and production. As a result, the public did not have a positive perception of bikut-si music. Jean-Marie believed that he could present a new bikut-si band that would challenge these three limitations and present bikut-si music correctly to the public in a new and revised form.46 These convictions worked, and by 1987 Les Têtes Brulées had materialized, shocking and wrecking havoc on the Cameroon Music Industry as well as the general public.47 It is safe to say that after the introduction of Les Têtes Brulées, the realities and demographics of Cameroonian music would never again be the same.

With Les Têtes Brulées, bikut-si finally found its niche. Their instantly recognizable sound was the result of the niche was found, satisfied by quality musicians, a unique image, proper management, and a sound that was innovative and yet rooted in Beti tradition. Bikut-si had found its "New Form." Up until Les Têtes Brulées, bikut-si had been lacking a feeling of electricity and excitement. The answer, Jean-Marie believed, was in creating a bikut-si that was more electric, with greater depth and diversity, which would offer excitement to its audience. "Bikut-si rock" thus evolved as the logical solution. Previously lacking from bikut-si was a guitar-balafon sound that was creative and not repetitive. Theodore Epeme, better known as Zanzibar, was the Têtes’ creative link to a new and intense guitar sound. A Congolese rumba guitarist by trade, he was one day convinced by Jean-Marie that bikut-si music had many untapped possibilities which could be unleashed through his guitar playing.

Through Zanzibar’s knack for the guitar, and his creative technique and innovation, he was able to push the balafon-guitar concept one step further than his competition. A true pioneer, Zanzibar chose foam rubber (from a bed mattress) and wove it in and out of the bridge of his electric guitar. This allowed him "to strike the strings with a hard percussive free stroke to produce a loud thunk sound."48 This technique provided less echo and more percussive thud, simulating a more "authentic" guitar-balafon.49 It was a more aggressive muting technique than had previously been attempted, and Zanzibar’s superb technical skills gave the group its edge over the competition in sound and uniqueness. Jean-Marie next realized tat a unique and creactive image was the real solution to bikut-si’s previous commercial and economic woes. In 1987, only two years after music videos on CRTV, Cameroon’s public had become over-accustomed to the bourgeoisie, chic, and gold-studded "style" presented in makossa and zouk videos.50 The Cameroonian public was being fed outward appearances and literally nothing of musical depth and quality. Les Têtes Brulées (literally meaning burnt-out heads) was thus founded as a reaction against this popularly projected image upon bikut-si musicians and fans.

According to Jean Marie, "I wanted to present musicians living in Cameroon, playing only bikut-si - the sort of music that people don’t want, but that the musicians decide to play anyways and succeed. When you try something your own way, and succeed [against the odds], then you are a Tete Brulée."51 The well planned image and presentation for the new group corresponded to this rejection of the slick pervading styles that were in fashion during 1987. When Les Têtes Brulées debuted their stage show on Tele-Podium that year, they immediately shocked, shattered, and reversed the values of the Cameroonian music-listening public.52 The group presented a visual spectacle to combine with their melding of Bikut-si and rock styles. With shaved heads and body painting representing scarification from traditional Beti ceremonies, the group immediately sent out a alternative message to the Makossa accustomed public. The addition of a variety of colors to the body painting implied a further ironic tinge that the Têtes had to add color to already "colored" skin.53 The group sported torn tee-shirts to represent the real economic situation of their country, rather than the elite escapist image that other musicians presented. Finally, the group wore backpacks during their performance as a homage to the Beti women who traditionally tied babies onto their backs and danced Bikut-si.54 Thus the embracing of Beti tradition as well as the economic realities of Cameroon’s masses represented an antithesis to the direction that the music industry had been headed minutes before Les Têtes Brulées had appeared on CRTV.

It was a revolutionary moment in its most blatant form. The response to the television debut was extremely positive - within a few weeks Les Têtes Brulées had not only found a spot for Bikut-si on the Cameroon music charts, but had also displaced the previously predominant Makossa music.55 A positive, fired up roots music had been lacking from modern Cameroon’s attention, and now the void had been filled and the public was buying the concept. That year, the group toured France - another landmark as the Têtes became the first full-fledged Bikut-si group to represent the style as musical ambassadors to the international public. Journalists in Paris and surrounding French cities proclaimed the Têtes a welcome and vibrant African musical spectacle, and made Western comparisons to George Clinton’s Parliament, Paris’s Cabaret spectacles, as well as Britain’s punk scene.56 One thing the headlines seemed to miss was that Les Têtes Brulées were representing Beti tradition, albeit a slightly modernized form. However, the media attention was overly positive, and Bikut-si welcomed all the attention it was deserving of.

While in France, the band’s first album, Hot Heads, was recorded, representing a significant improvement for Bikut-si in recording and production quality. For once Bikut-si had a finished product that could compete with and perhaps surpass a Makossa product. Hot Heads also represented the first example of Bikut-si music on the digital CD format. Lyrically, Hot Heads shifted the theme from solely dealing with womanizing to issues of social struggle and awkwardness. "Ca Fait Mal" dealt with shattered dreams while "Za Ayi Meyi" spoke of the difficulties associated with escaping the family in order to become a musician.57 The combination of Beti, French, and English lyrrics hinted at Bikut-si’s maturity and realization that it indeed now catered to an international public, rather than just one concentrated in the Yaoundé and forest region of Cameroon. Winding up the decade, the group would expand its fame and tour extensively throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and parts of Africa. Portions of their European leg of the tour were used by acclaimed movie director Claire Denis, in the movie "Man No Run," which debuted in cinemas throughout France during 1988.

A follow up album entitled Bikutsi Rock followed and included more complex harmonies, Jean Marie’s trumpet playing, and even songs done in acapella style. By 1992 the band had come to represent to the world a significant part of Cameroon’s cultural and musical export, resulting in the band being invited to accompany Cameroon’s soccer team to the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and the United States in 1994. Cameroon’s subsequent victories were therefore celebrated in Bikut-si style to the soccer spectators worldwide. Thus it can be said that the continuing successes of Les Têtes Brulées acts as a powerful reminder that Bikut-si, given its adaptability and the proper innovators, can be a powerful force in the music world.

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With Makossa’s upheaval and Bikut-si’s sudden commercialization, many fundamental aspects of the music underwent changes and alterations. The combination of strategic promotion and in image portrayal on behalf of Les Têtes Brulées signaled a change in the Bikut-si musician’s perception of the audience.58 Commercialism and newfound popularity meant that Bikut-si could now be heard and seen by everyone throughout Cameroon and parts of West Africa, Europe, and the United States. The Têtes’ stage show brought up the notion that a musician could visually entertain the audience while performing Bikut-si to them.59 Finally, the addition of new instruments, styles, and arrangements opened up Bikut-si to further development by other up and coming Cameroonians as well as a few foreign artists. Thus 1988 to 1993 was a growth period for Bikut-si, as artists new and old saw a resurgence and improved awareness of all aspects of the music. Artists, in general, could either follow in the Têtes’ footsteps or else try to forge a unique and in some cases critical alternative to the already popularized Bikut-si-rock. A group of twelve musicians, led by original Têtes’ bassist Atebass, formed Les Martiens in an unsuccessful attempt to mimic the Têtes’ originality and image.60 Old timers, such as Sala Bekono, saw career resurgence with a series of successful albums up through the 1990’s. Katino Ateba, in a homage to the traditional erotic aspects of Bikut-si, sang "Ascenseur: le secret de l’homme" (translated as "Lift 69"). This song was a statement that said Katino feared no man, not even the archbishop, hence her ability to sing authoritatively about a man’s sexual prowess.61 Ateba continued by inviting, and in some cases demanding, that men confront her and to thus allow her personal witness of their sexual size and ability.63

Hit’s like Ateba’s signaled a return to Bikut-si’s sexual side, and the artist’s efforts to push the lyrics and the public further onwards with eroticism. Meanwhile, a Douala singer named Sissi Dipoko sang "Bikut-si Hit" which symbolically bridged the Douala-Yaoundé musical gap and proved that even Douala artists could in turn do Bikut-si numbers.64 Thus on the home front, this period was very productive and signaled a surge in creativity which would lead to Bikut-si’s most recent explosion of popularity, the Pedalé movement of 1993. On the international scene, Bikut-si saw continued growth as well, including increased representation of artists and producers in Paris and New York. This fact, and the international presence of Les Têtes Brulées, meant that foreign artists were able to take notice of the Cameroonian rhythm and in some cases create their own tributes to the Bikut-si style.

A notable example among many was Paul Simon’s 1990 album Spirit Of The Saints, a Brazilian and Cameroonian inspired fusion which included a strong Bikut-si track entitled "Proof." This tribute by Simon is definitely pure Bikut-si rhythm, into which he melds his own personal singing style and Brazilian/Latino horn riffs. This event was most notable due to Simon’s collaboration with African producers and musicians, including Georges Seba, Martin Atangana, and Vincent Nguini.64 The product and its impressive sales demonstrated the marketability and appeal Bikut-si could have if produced under the right circumstances. At the same time, in both Paris and New York producers and session musicians such as Uta Bella, Georges Seba, Jean Luc Ponty, and Jimmy Mvondo Mvelé acted as counterbalances to the presence of Les Têtes Brulées.65 Thus by 1993 Bikut-si had been given its chance to break out into the world, both to make itself known as well as to absorb outside influences.

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By 1993 Bikut-si had proven that it could adapt to the times in order to meet the requirements of modernity. But six years is a long time for any musical style to ride on a crest of popularity and continue its momentum. Critics and fans perhaps wondered if this run of prosperity that Bikut-si had experienced could continue at the rate it was heading. By this time, Cameroonians were fast coming to the hard realization that their country was in the midst of economic decline and turmoil. Cameroon’s economic crisis, which had begun in 1986, was continuing, and there were no bright signs and little hope on the horizon. Salaries were slashed, payments were not being made, and the average Cameroonian was much worse off than a decade earlier. Times were tough, and an outlet was needed to let off the steam and frusteration. Bikut-si, in a defiant leap over critics’ pessimism, took on this challenge, and in 1993 at the legendary Carrosel Club the Pedalé movement was born.66 Pedalé was the Bikut-si artist’s answer to tough times as well as a rebirth movement for the music. 1993 was signified by a dramatic number of new, youthful artists who literally exploded on the Bikut-si scene, forming what they considered to be a "nouvelle generation" of Bikut-si.67 Artists such as Zele le Bombardier, Saint-Desiré Atango, Eboue Chaleur, Pasto, Gibraltar Drakuss, Roger Bekono, and Mbarga Soukous offered new life to Bikut-si’s already legendary evolution.

In the words of singer Bisso’ Solo, this new pedalé form of Bikut-si must have an "accelerated, savage, and brutal" sound, rather than the previous cool beat of Bikut-si.68 It would be something that riveted all who heard it, forcing them to gyrate and stamp their way into physical and in many cases sexual bliss. Pedalé and the subsequent explosion of artists and Bikut-si recordings, worked wonders on the public. Bars, especially the large outdoor Carrosel Club, the Parisien, the Chalet, the Eldorado, and the legendary Escalier Bar, at once saw dramatic crowds of people pouring in to hear the live, juiced up Bikut-si on Friday and Saturday nights. The action that takes place in such clubs is a sight not to miss, as dancers crush together, shaking in frenzied trances on the square dance floor, expressions of physical and drunken pleasure plastering the face. It’s the accelerated beat that does it, and as each song progresses, the realities and frustrations of the past week fade deeper and deeper into oblivion. Pedalé offers a way in which to escape from la crise economique which no other art form has previously offered the Cameroonian. A night at the Carrosel, for example, is literally "Bikut-si non-stop" as over 10 singers join the club’s orchestra for continuous music from 11pm onwards. Up until sunrise the crowd continues to grow, as fans trickle in from other dance clubs, not wanting to miss the increased excitement that the pedalé orchestra is bringing to the music. 5:00 AM singals the best artists as well as the height of an evening at the Carrosel - everyone is up and dancing, causing an ocean of empty benches as well a scattering of "33" beer bottles and whisky "condoms." The result is a swarming sea of packed bodies on the hot and sweaty dance floor, pulsating to the beat under a canopy of stars.

It is at this point that the new pedalé dance is truly appreciated. People "pedal" their way through the blaring music, as if their arms are riding a bicycle, each revolution equaling precisely one stamp of the Bikut-si beat. The pedalé dance has adapted to the crowded dance floors so well that many regulars have begun to see philosophical insight into its meaning. Carrosel announcer MC Hotman proclaims that the pedalé can be looked at as a revolutionary message by the people against the economic and social situations that they must face during the week. As the Bikut-si dance becomes a philosophy, Hotman explains, "one can pedal away the weekend and forget that during the week the children are needy."69 It’s as if you are at the bottom of a long, never ending hill. You must keep pedaling in hopes that the end is near, because if you stop you’ll never know what’s over the horizon.

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(1996 - )

It is in the fashion of the pedalé explosion that Bikut-si has been able to continuously adapt to the needs and challenges of modern times. By 1996, Pedalé was two times more popular than it was during 1993, at its conception.70 Today in Yaoundé, Pedalé draws the crowds, and all the clubs that have Bikut-si orchestras play it. Bikut-si now rivals Makossa within Cameroon, it has gained moments of international prestige, and it continues to offer an up-beat and rootsy music alternative to the public. Having surpassed critic’s previous expectations, where can Bikut-si now go? It’s a difficult question, especially after evaluating the gripes and complaints of modern-day Bikut-si artists regarding the continuing poor state of Cameroon’s music industry and thus that of the Bikut-si artist. By and large, Bikut-si musicians claim to be extremely hard working, hence their conviction to battle out any and all obstacles that might rock their boat in the future.71 But the reality is there are many challenges artists now face that must be tackled and overcome if Bikut-si is to continue as a primary music force in Cameroon. These challenges and complaints are the very elements which define Cameroon’s modern music industry in 1996.

Hence it is not the music or the artists who challenge Bikut-si’s future, but instead the infrastructure and realities of an industry that form constraints on the artists and their creativity. Pedalé singer Bisso’Solo highlighted several areas in significant need of improvement, and various post-discussions with other contacts (see sources) echoed these complaints regarding today’s industry.72 Bikut-si’s fundamental problem is the lack of good and talented producers within the field. Bikut-si artists are, across the board, in need of money and thus dependent on outside producers. In today’s industry, most producers are local merchants who have limited capital and thus little interest in commitment and artist development. The problem is at once evident - the goal is to achieve a quick buck, something definitely possible when the artists is promoted for scarcely two months, and then dropped. Then where is the artist and his or her career?

In the field of promotion, one can be in Yaoundé for six months and if lucky come across one or two large scale concert performances. The producers just aren’t interested in organizing tours for their artists. Bikut-si recording facilites are inadequate, and the resulting Cameroonian-produced cassettes are often poor quality and thus inferior to a Makossa counterpart. Finally and most disturbing, is the readily accepted system of bribery which controls the realms of radio and television airplay. To get a song on the radio, an artist must first pay 50,000 CFA in order to get a droit de radio (radio rights).73 After the rights are bought, an artist must individually go to a radio DJ, and bribe the individual according to how much air time the artist wishes to receive.74 The result is that quality doesn’t count, and money does. Likewise for music videos, where one must pay a bribe for each time a video airs.75 Because Bikut-si artists rely on their producers for financing, it is obvious that the entire issue of promotion and production is lacking and thus of critical importance if the Bikut-si artists are to see their present positions improve.

The second area of complaints regard SOCINADA, the national society for artistic development. Typical comments regarding SOCINADA ranged from "it’s better than nothing" to "it’s a sickness within the industry." Here are the facts. Almost every artist within Cameroon is a member, and yet barely one gets what he or she was promised out of the agency. The first promise broken is the continued fight against piracy of cassettes, as each artist member pays 85 CFA per cassette in order to have a SOCINADA sticker affixed assuring authenticity. But walk down any Yaoundé street, and you will be accosted by venders with cardboard boxes full of pirated and unauthorized cassettes for half the price. At the same time, enter any "disco" in a small town and you can have cassettes recorded for you, with any combination of artists, at half price. Not only is the quality second rate, but the artist never sees even one CFA from the transaction. There is no solution except a massive crackdown on the issue, and right now SOCINADA does not have the person-power to do so.77 The second complaint is that artists seldom get payments and loans from SOCINADA, even though a percentage of each cassette produced goes into the agency. If the artist pays in, the agency must pay out as advertised. Again, there are too many artists with too many needs, and the organization’s structure as well as its documentation of payments needs to be improved if the artist is to see a better financial situation.78

Thus the areas of promotion and of artist organization are two which greatly plague the financial and career welfare of the Bikut-si artist. The music has proven with time that it can endure as well as adapt with the moment. It is now up to the Bikut-si artists to try and chisel away at the cumbersome infrastructure which binds them in place. If such changes can be made, then surely the history of Bikut-si will be bright. But if the system stays the same, then the artists, and perhaps the resulting musical output, may be jeopardized. One awaits the outcome.





Andrews, Sekou. Bikut-si Rap: 2 Musical Evolutionary Twins Destined To Mate. Indepenent Study Project #S1993

"Beko Sadey" Dikalo au Féminin. 29 Mars au 5 avril 1996, p8.

"Cameroon - Makossa I Bikutsi I: Music of a Small Continent." Rough Guide To World Music. 1994.

Graham, Ronnie. The DaCapo Guide to Contemporary African Music. New York: DaCapo Press, 1988.

"Jean-Marie Ahanda, le cerveau des Tetes Brulées," La Lettre aux Musiques et des Artes Africains. vol27, 5 Fevrier 1996 (p2-4).

"Jean Marie Ahanda - le manager fierté et amertune" Cameroon Tribune. #3916 Samedi 11 Juillet 1987

"La Musique Fievreuse des Tetes Brulées" Balafon Air Afrique Magazine. #126 Fev- Mars 1996, p44-47.

"Les Tetes Brulées" Agence France Press. Bourges: 7 Avril 1989.

"Les Tetes Brulées" Option Magazine(excerpt p.2)

Tenaille, Frank. "Les Tetes Brulées" Le Nouvel Observateur


Messi Martin: The Best Of Messi Martin, Editions Briff #006

Gibraltar Drakus: Tropical Rock, Medium Productions

Sala Bekono: Dans Ossas II Ecris Moi Otil Ma, Ekeg’s Production

Les Tetes Brulées: Be Happy, 1996 Declic

Bikutsi System: Heritage, Alex Ekoo Productions

Zele Le Bombardier: A Qui La Faute?, Editions ETS MC Pop Music


Jean-Marie Ahanda: Formal Interviews: 25 March, 29 March, 3 April, Informal Talks: Every Monday and Wednesday between 10AM-1PM from 27 March to 8 May, and most every other day as well.

Bisso’Solo: Interview on Socinada and Pedalé 23 April 1996, 1PM, his home

MC Hotman: Interview on Pedalé 1 April, Carrosel Club, 4AM

Celia Pama: Informal talk 15 April 1996, 7PM

Gibraltar Drakus: Various Informal Talks, various evenings

Tino (guitarist Tetes Brulées) + Catino: Every Monday and Wednesday between 10AM and 1PM, from 27 March to 8 May.

Musicians at Paquitta Plus

Roger Star, guitarist at Escalier Club

Socinada "administration"


1 Ahanda, Jean-Marie. Interview. 8 May 1996.

2 Ahanda, Jean-Marie. Interview. 4 May 1996.

3 La Lettre aux Musiques et des Artes Africains. vol27, 5 Fevrier 1996, 2.

4 Ahanda, Jean-Marie. Interview. 25 March 1996.

5 Ahanda, 25 March 1996.

6 Ahanda, 25 March 1996.

7 La Lettre, 4.

8 Rough Guide to World Music, 325.

9 Rough, 325.

10 Rough, 325.

11 Rough, 326.

12 Rough, 325.

13 Rough, 326.

14 Option Magazine, 1.

15 Ahanda, 25 March.

16 Option, 1.

17 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

18 Ahanda, 8 May 1996.

19 Option, 1.

20 Option, 1.

21 Rough, 325.

22 Rough, 325.

23 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

24 Option, 1.

25 Rough, 325.

26 Rough, 325.

27 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

28 Rough, 325.

29 Rough, 325.

30 Rough, 325.

31 Discusions with Tino and Catino (see sources)

32 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

33 Balafon Air Afrique Magazine, Fev-Mars 1996, 44.

34 Balafon, 46.

35 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

36 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

37 La Lettre, 3.

38 La Lettre, 3.

39 Rough, 326.

40 Solo, Bisso’ Interview. 23 April 1996, 1PM

41 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

42 Option, 1.

43 Ahanda, 3 April 1996.

44 La Lettre, 3.

45 La Lettre, 3.

46 La Lettre, 3.

47 La Lettre, 3.

48 Option, 1.

49 Balafon, 44.

50 La Lettre, 4.

51 Option, 1.

52 La Lettre, 3.

53 Option, 1.

54 Option, 1.

55 La Lettre, 4.

56 Various Headlines supplied by Project Director

57 Option, 1.

58 Ahanda, 25 March 96.

59 Ahanda, 25 March 96.

60 Ahanda, 25 March 96.

61 Rough, 326.

62 Rough, 326.

63 Ahanda, 8 May 1996.

64 Rough, 326.

65 Rough, 326.

66 Rough, 326.

67 Solo, 23 April 1996.

68 Solo, 23 April 1996.

69 Solo, 23 April 1996.

70 Hotman, MC. Interview. 1 April 1996.

71 Solo, 23 April 1996.

72 Solo, 23 April 1996.

73 Ahanda, 29 March 1996.

74 Ahanda, 29 March 1996.

75 Dikalo au Feminin, 8.

76 All Personal Sources

77 Socinada Administration Visit

78 Socinada Administration Visit