Composer for Every Country: Equatorial Guinea

Reading the colonial history of Equatorial Guinea's island, Bioko, is a little bit like that skit in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail where the dude is recounting his attempts to build a castle in a swamp. Successive centuries of colonial failures largely left the island untouched by either plantations or slavery until the mid-18th century. Europe's first contact with the island was made by the Portuguese explorer Fernando Pó in 1472 and, like any self-respecting colonial power would do, the Portuguese immediately set about trying to figure out how to make money off of it. They settled colonies in 1474, and by 1507 were attempting to farm sugarcane on the island, emphasis on "attempting." Between the local Bubi tribes putting up stiff resistance and diseases including (but not limited to) smallpox, yellow fever, and African trypanosomiasis (see: tsetse flies), this attempt marked the first castle falling into the swamp.

Another attempt wouldn't be made until after 1778, when the Portuguese gave up on the island and handed it to Spain in the Treaty of El Pardo. Spain picked Brigadier Felipe José to set up the second castle that would fall in the swamp. In this case, he didn't last long, dying of fever pretty much the day of arrival, along with a whopping 80% of the crew. Naturally, they mutinied and left for São Tomé where they were imprisoned by the Portuguese. The mortality rate was too high for Spain's taste, and they left the island as a stopping point for slave ships for a good while (note: the Bubi were still fighting strong at this point, and not really subject to slaving themselves).

It wouldn't be for another hundred years until somebody had the bright idea to move the administration of the island away from the disease filled coasts and up to the highlands where, much to everybody's surprise, people didn't die of fever every five days. Granted, this wasn't as much an improved standard of living as it was an improved standard of not-dying. Ethnographer and explorer Mary Kingsley said the island was "a more uncomfortable form of execution" for people sent there. Not really a glowing recommendation. In any case, this marked a turning point for the island and it didn't take long for cocoa to be established as a key crop for export.

Most of the history reading I was able to find focused on Bioko, but just at the last minute, I did come across a fantastically detailed article Adriana Chira, Assistant Professor at Emory University, who wrote an excellent summary of the entire country: Currently, Equatorial Guinea is listed as on the the worst of the worst countries in the world by measures of political freedom. The country is rife with corruption made worse by an oil boom in the 1990's, resulting in extreme wealth inequality. The current president, Teodoro Obiang, is busy building a cult of personality around himself, but might still be considered a step up from his uncle, Macias Nguema, who claimed to be a sorcerer and collected human skulls. You know, as you do.

Culturally, the mainland is a thin layer of Spanish plastered over a number of Bantu speaking tribes, primarily the Fang. They are known in the art world for their wooden reliquary figures, and also for their religious ceremonies involving puppet theater. One artist who reached international fame was Don Leandro Mbomio Nsue whose sculptures are heavily influenced by Fang art. Music and dance are tied at the hip, with the balélé coming from Bubi and the ibanga from the Fang. The primary melodic instrument is a kind of harp called the mvet, whose main proponent was a man named Ekong Eyi Mone. There's not much of a music industry in Equatorial Guinea, and many of the musicians who want to make a name for themselves have had to travel elsewhere, usually to Spain.

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Speaking of musicians who expatriated to Spain, today's composer is the travador urbano, Barón Ya Búk-Lu (b.1967). An Equatoguinean of Fang heritage, Mr. Búk-Lu (I assume that's an appropriate title? Maybe "Ya" is already a title. Quick! Somebody get angry at me on the internet so I can stand corrected!) is a singer, actor, activist, and is also a producer. That last job title was out of necessity. After immigrating to Spain, Búk-Lu found it difficult to attract the interest of record labels, who found his music either "too African," or "not African enough," or that he was singing in the wrong language (spoilers: there was no right language for him to sing in). In addition to self-producing his three records, Ya Búk-Lu is the driving force behind the Festival Africanos en Leganés, a music festival featuring African artists and various fusions of local Spanish styles. The link is to the title track of his third album, Fangolosofia.