Capturing the Cameroon sound

Boston Globe, June 26, 2009

If nothing else, history will retain that Andre-Marie Tala sued James Brown for plagiarism – and won.

It stemmed from a 1973 incident when Brown was touring in West Africa. In Cameroon, the young Tala – an emerging local singer and guitarist – handed Brown a demo copy of “Hot Koki,” a hard-funk number he had composed.

Two years later, Brown dropped “Hustle!!!” – with the same melody, beat, and arrangements, only with English lyrics. An American court found in Tala’s favor, ruling that the Godfather of Soul had used his work without permission.

But Tala deserves much more than just a footnote on music litigation. For his prolific output, influence, and longevity, he’s been as essential to Cameroonian music as a Salif Keita has been to Mali, or a King Sunny Ade to Nigeria.

Blind since age 15, he’s been compared to Stevie Wonder; like Wonder, he’s blessed with a smooth, inviting voice and far-reaching artistic curiosity. In the 1970s he played rock and funk.

Yet Tala is little known outside Africa, and almost not at all here. A four-city tour that opens tonight at Club Lido in Revere aims to remedy that. It features Tala; Emile Kangue, a top figure of makossa, Cameroon’s biggest pop style; and Jacob Nguni, who played guitar with Prince Nico on the pan-African classic “Sweet Mother.”

On the phone from Cameroon, Tala – who is based in Paris but travels back frequently – says the Brown incident illustrated a level of cross-fertilization between America and African music in the ’70s that listeners today might not appreciate.

“Cameroon is a very open country,” he says. “We always welcomed anything that came from outside. We listened religiously to the Beatles or Ray Charles. I forged myself listening to rhythm & blues, to Muddy Waters, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding.”

Tala’s early sound also drew on rhythms from his own Bamileke ethnic group, as well as French chanson. One early hit, “Je Vais a Yaounde,” a tale of people leaving the village to seek fortune, is a masterpiece of the French ballad style.

“There were various factions and camps at that time,” Tala says. “Some people didn’t want to make French music because they didn’t find it as advanced as American soul. But I paid attention to everything without prejudice.”

The late 1970s was a fruitful time in African music, as high commodity prices kept money flowing and governments and the emerging urban middle class helped sustain legendary bands in many countries.

Cameroon was no exception. Among its big stars were Tala, makossa icons Manu Dibango and Moni Bile, and Les Black Styl’, the makossa ensemble that Emile Kangue led before going solo in the early 1980s.

With long, sinuous songs, call-and-response sequences, and prominent guitar and horn sections, makossa was Cameroon’s cousin to soukouss from nearby Congo.

“Makossa in Cameroon is like soccer,” says Jean-Bosco Tagne, the Boston-based Cameroonian scientist who organized and promoted this tour. “And Kangue is makossa, with his melodies and his big voice.”

But times grew hard when collapsing crop prices, economic austerity, and the devaluation of the regional currency drastically reduced opportunities to perform and support large bands.

By 1997, Kangue was weary of the struggle. Toward the end of a US tour, a promoter suggested he stay and make a fresh start. He took the plunge.

“I had opportunities in South Africa and other places,” Kangue says. “But it was always a dream to come to the United States. The challenge was to start from nothing and to find work. In Cameroon I could go for months between shows, and I didn’t have to work for anyone.”

Not so in Atlanta. The revered bandleader, whose videos showed him in dapper suits, emerging from fancy cars in places like Paris and London, started riding the bus in the Georgia dawn to a warehouse job where he packed reams of sales fliers. Next he became a sales associate at an OfficeMax, rising to supervisor of the electronics department. After five years, he moved on to Dollar General, where he is now an assistant regional manager.

One day, he says, he finally invited a friendly supervisor to a party, where she was stunned to see him play for an adoring crowd.

“She absolutely went crazy,” he says. “The next day she brought our whole team together and said, `Do you realize Emile is a star?’ “

Today, Kangue has found balance between his new and old lives. He has a green card and travels back to Cameroon, as well as to France to record.

His friend Tala, meanwhile, has responded to economic change in his own way: He embraced bend-skin – a bare-bones local style made, in its simplest form, with found percussions – and gave it a fuller, more polished feel and a message of empowerment.

“Africa needs to invest in its own means,” Tala says. “We need to develop our culture industry.”

As for that James Brown incident? No hard feelings. In fact, Tala says, before Brown’s death in late 2006, representatives of the two men had started hatching plans for a joint appearance, singing “Hot Koki” and “Hustle!!!” together.

“Of course I forgive him!” Tala says. “I was lucky to have met him, and I was lucky that he plagiarized my work. Who wouldn’t want to be copied by James Brown?”