Composer for Every Country: Cameroon

At some time in 1472, the Lepidophthalmus turneranus (or ghost shrimp, if you're a plebian (not to be confused with the other two species of shrimp called ghost shrimp)) had one of their massive swarms they have every 3 to 5 years, bursting out of the mud for a grand shellfish orgy in the Wouri River. It was a grand time to be a ghost shrimp. At the same time, a group of Portuguese sailors arrived on the coast, made their way into the river, and couldn't help but notice the piles of copulating shrimp, and decided to name the river Rio dos Camarões, or "Shrimp River." This marked the beginning of a less than grand time to be African in the area which English speakers would mispronounce as "Cameroon."

Before we get to that colonial Cameroon, there are two human groups which formed the first cultures in the area. The first, the Baka peoples (or "Pygmies," but you'd do well to avoid using the term) settled the area probably 5000 years ago, or so. Hunter-gatherers of the Central African rainforest, their culture is undergoing rapid change due to increasing deforestation. They are also excellent fishers, and if you want to learn more about Baka fishing practices than you'd ever imaging, you can click on this link.

Afterwards, and alongside them, came a number of Bantu migrations, leading eventually to the Bornu Empire. This empire lasted from about 700AD to 1900AD, encompassing areas of Chad, Niger, and Sudan. The history of the Bornu Kingdom is known mostly through a text called the Girgam, or Royal Chronical. The long-lived kingdom finally fell in 1900 when the French won a decisive victory against warlord Rabih az-Zubayr in the Battle of Kousséri and captured the capital, Dikwa.

Is there much can be said about the region before 1800? Yes. Can I easily find that information? No. But the 1800s saw two big events - Modibo Adama led the Fulani people in a jihad and established the Adamawa Emirate, causing a large redistribution of the population in the area; and Sultan Ibrahim Njoya invented what is called Shumom, or the Bamum script, a written language that compressed the whole range of script evolution, from pictographs to phonetic script, in 14 years. The time was otherwise rather dark for many people in the area because the German colonizers ran a system of forced labor (I don't know why Wikipedia doesn't call it slavery) to lay down railroads, and introduce industry. The treatment of local Africans got so bad, one governor, Jesko von Puttkamer, was relieved of his duties. But don't worry, Wikipedia tells us he at least left a "splendid residential manor" behind.

Wikipedia was less than helpful with Cameroonian art. Literature is divided between colonial writers and post-independence (1960) writers. The city Yaoundé is rising as a center of various visual and performative arts exploring nature, ecology, and colonial fallout. Standout musical genres (beyond traditional music) are the enormously popular makossa and a dance craze called bikutsi

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Our composer today is Francis Bebey (1929-2001). Poet, guitarist, composer, mathematician, radio broadcaster... He had many talents. As a guitarist, he was influenced by Andrés Segovia while in Paris, and was hired by UNESCO to travel and document music of Central Africa. Stylistically, he blended elements of African, Latin American, and European classical music, leading many to consider him a pioneer of the world music genre.

A good introductory song to his pop-oriented style is The Coffee Cola Song

A Composer for Every Country: Indonesia

The island nation of Indonesia is a tough one to write about succinctly. Not only is the country expansive, but every island has its own unique culture, and there are a LOT of islands. 17,500 of them, in fact, and 6,000 of them are inhabited. It's also a bit tough to find information on Indonesia in English. Not only is Indonesia apparently a bit of a lightning rod for "alternative histories" involving Atlantis, Lemuria, and cryptids, but the country's rich archaeological sites prove problematic for young earthers who search for creationist explanations for the Java Man. Also, there's a Java Man coffee house which sucks up a lot of prime Google pages, in case you want to learn more. The internet never fails to surprise.

In any case, fossilized Homo erectus skeletons suggest inhabitation started between 500,000 and 2 million years ago. Heck of a margin of error, but that's how archaeology do sometimes. For modern humans, there are two major groups of note - the Austronesian people showing up around 2,000 BCE and known for their pottery and woodcarvings, and the Melanesian people who were displaced by the Austronesian migrations.

As far as large scale kingdoms go, Indonesia is largely shaped first by Hinduism and Buddhism, and then by Islam. The Srivijaya kingdom really took off in the 7th century CE. Two kingdoms highlight the religious influences: the Saliendra kingdom, who were Buddhist and are primarily known today for the Borobudur Temple; and the Mataram dynasty, who are largely known for the Prambanan Temple. In the late 1200s, the Hindu Majapahit kingdom spread across Java, leaving a large body of terracotta works. The spread of Islam into the archipelago was slow, a process occurring over several hundred years. 

As one might expect, these religious roots had a dramatic influence on the arts of the kingdom, informing art with Buddhist and Hindu styles from India and south China. The influence of Islamic art is, for some reason, less well studied, but is present nonetheless. The influence can also be found in architecture, as can be seen in the candi structures on Bali or the temples in Java.

Christianity was brought by Europeans in the 1500s. While the Portuguese made first contact with the Indonesians, it was ultimately the Dutch East India Trading Company that became the dominant European force in the area. Not that they had an easy time of it. Rebellions against Dutch presence were frequent, and several leaders, like Prince Diponegoro, Tuanku Imam Bonjol, and Kapitan Pattimura have been canonized as national heroes and are pictured on their currency.

Getting into music, traditions are markedly different from island to island. Indonesia's biggest claim to musical fame is the gamelan, an orchestra of gongs and drums, but the styles of Javanese gamelan differ from the Balinese. Bali also has a traditional ceremony called the kecak, a ritual telling of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Another distinct tradition is Sundanese folk music, from a minority group on the island of Java. Music and dance are often (almost always?) tied together, and two notable examples include the saman "Dance of a Thousand Hands" and the dances of the Mirangkabau peoples. Many of these musical traditions are still living, with new compositions being written for them, but Indonesia also has its own genre of popular music called dangdut which blends many of the traditional instruments with electronic instruments, while adopting a modern pop style.

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Today's composer is Dr. Gumgum Gumbira Tirasondjaja (1945-2020), a Sundanese musician, choreographer, and orchestra leader from Bandung, West Java. Dr. Tirasondjaja's music is a 20th-century reimagining of rural dance rituals. His compositional direction was dramatically influenced by Indonesian President Sukarno who, in 1961, prohibited Western popular music like rock and roll and pushed for a renewal of local traditional music. The most popular result of Dr. Tirasondjaja's studies was a dance called Jaipongang, combining influences from the Indonesian martial art, Pencak Silat, the masked dance, Topeng, and Wayang shadow puppet theater.

Apparently, Jaipongang wasn't the "right" Indonesian art, because the government did try to suppress it after its debut in 1974, but it survived and continues to survive to this day, although rather reduced in popularity. Here is a solo dance, Keser Bojang, which, due to my illiteracy in Indonesian and total lack of information in English, I can't find much to say about. The little I've been able to find tell it is a dance of "moving," that is "moving from one position to a better, more precise position." Given the sung accompaniment, I would guess the movements are also a form of pantomime.

A Composer for Every Country: Papua New Guinea

It really says something about not just the breadth of colonialism's reach, but also the dearth of its creativity that there are countries called "Guinea" on opposite sides of the globe. Apparently, New Guinea was named by Yñigo Oritz de Retez who thought its inhabitants were similar to the inhabitants of African Guinea. Hm. I wonder what those similarities might be... I guess we'll never know (Guinea's etymology eventually leads back to "Land of the Blacks"). I don't want to rib the guy too hard, because as an explorer and seasoned seafarer, de Retez did a heck of a lot more with his life than I have, but still. Naming countries wasn't his forte.

Papua New Guinea is about half of the world's second largest island, the other approximately half, called... let me see here... Western New Guinea? Seriously? Ok, fine. Western New Guinea is part of Indonesia. As it turns out, Papua New Guinea is probably the most culturally diverse country in the world, containing a whopping 840 living languages and just as many customary communities, which the majority of the country's inhabitants still live in.

I have to say, I am again disappointed to find that most of the history of Papua New Guinea starts post-colonialism. It makes sense, because the tribes didn't have writing, but surely their oral histories must count for something, yes? Like, you could even say "Oral accounts tell such and such," with the understanding that oral histories have their own form of distortion. But we've got what we've got, I suppose. 

So it goes like this: the northern half of what would become Papua New Guinea was colonized by Germany, and the southern half was colonized by Great Britain. In 1905, Britain transfers its control of British New Guinea to Australia and it is renamed Territory of Papua. Then, in 1914, Australia takes German New Guinea shortly after the outbreak of World War I. After WWI ends, the League of Nations said Australia could retain control of German New Guinea, now called Territory of Guinea, but that, for some reason, the Territory of Papua was only an external territory of Australia but still legally British. Even though the Brits gave it to Australia. End result? Papua and New Guinea, from the end of WWI to 1949, were both controlled by Australia, but required two separate administrative systems. People looked at that and nodded and said, "Yes. This is acceptable."

Throughout all this, nobody asked what the local tribes thought of all this. To be sure, nobody asked the local tribes what they thought about the Japanese coming in an taking control of the area during WWII either. In any case, after WWII, Papua and New Guinea were combined into Papua New Guinea, settling many a bureaucratic headache but also cutting off a number of opportunities for petty corruption, and the region achieved independence in 1975. Interestingly, the Papua New Guinean government did seem to ask local tribes what they wanted, and settled on a type of tenure called "customary land titles," which gives indigenous people inalienable tenure over their traditional lands.

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Today's composer is George Telek (b.??) from the village Raluana on the northernmost point of New Britain, an island to the east of Papua New Guinea. Local legend has it that, as a child, Mr. Telek chewed on a sacred betel nut and was granted dreams of his ancestors which gave him the basis for his music. While George Telek is still rooted in his village life, he is the first Papua New Guinean to achieve international fame in music. The National Broadcasting Corporation began putting out recordings of local talent in 1977, and Mr. Telek recorded 5 solo albums with them. Later, in 1986, he met Australian rock musician David Bridie, and had a long and fruitful career working together with him. The song below, Tatabai, is the result of this collaboration between the two artists.



Composer for Every Country: Nigeria

Editorial Note: I've decided to change my approach to writing these essays. If you've been a regular reader, you'll notice a lot of hotlinks. I don't intend, or even recommend, for the reader click and follow the links. They are mostly there for reference and to provide the reader an easy way to find non-Wikipedia articles for points of interest. If they prove too distracting, I'll move them to end-notes. I've also stopped embedding the music videos, and included them as a link only, because of copyright concerns I hadn't considered before. These blogs take a good amount of work, so if you feel like supporting the project, consider joining my Patreon here: Thanks for reading!

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Here in the States, Nigeria has a bit of a reputation because of the infamous "Nigerian Prince" email scam. It's true, there are a lot of Nigerian scammers. But Nigeria also is home to the earliest evidence for iron smelting in West Africa, thanks to the Nok culture. The Nok date back to about 1500BC, and also created a number of terracotta figures that date back to 500BC, right around when they started iron smelting. The prevailing Medieval ethnicities in the area include the Igbo, who founded the kingdom of Nri, and the Yoruba peoples, who founded the Ife and Oyo kingdoms.  Of great cultural significance to the Hausa people is the Kano Chronicle, a collection of stories about the founding and list of kings of the city-state, Kano. Its authorship and date of collection remain in doubt, although at least one author thinks the work was written down in the 17th-century. Regardless, the Kano Chronicle stands as a rich source of tradition and literature.

After European contact, the germination of the slave trade led to a number of port cities in the Bight of Biafra. The 17th-18th centuries were a tumultuous time for the region, with infighting among the Hausa groups leading to the rise and settling of the Fulani, a previously nomadic Sahelian tribe. This political shift culminated in the 19th century when Fulani religious leader Usman dan Fodio led a successful jihad against the Hausa and established the Sokoto Caliphate, a kingdom lasting from 1804 until 1904 when it was broken up by the British. The firm establishment of Islam in the area also had clear artistic influence, which can be seen in fashion and visual iconography

British occupation and rule of Nigeria was established in 1914 and lasted until Nigeria's independence in 1960. The establishment of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria joined two previously established protectorates, Northern and Southern, as well as Lagos Colony, a port in southern Nigeria. This occupation brought a number of large scale changes to the culture. First, it led to the choice of English as the national language allowing communication and commerce across the nearly 500 different languages in Nigeria. Second, it brought Christian missionaries to the area which have culminated in a near 50/50 demographic split between Christian and Muslim Nigerians which, in turn, has dramatic implications for the country's politics. Finally, European style education, which had been introduced long before, was firmly established, leaving long roots in Nigeria's literatureart, and music

Since independence, Nigeria has vacillated between democratic and military rule and is quickly growing in economy and political influence. Musically (as artistically and culturally), Nigeria is so diverse that summary is impossible. Traditional music continues to flourish among the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa. Popular styles include palm wine, jùjú, apala, afrobeat... the list goes on.

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Our composer for today is Joshua Uzoigwe. Starting music very early, he drummed and played the oja flute as a child. He attended King's College Secondary School in Lagos, studying piano with Major J. J. Allen, winning prizes for his playing. He studied ethnomusicology under John Blacking at Queen's University at Belfast, and as a composer joined Nigerian, European classical, and a variety of other African influences to fuse a singular style. Mr. Uzoigwe was also a poet, and has a collection of memoirs detailing his life and work The Joshua Uzoigwe African Spirit Award is given in his honor.

Here is the first movement of his piano work, "Talking Drums," in which Mr. Uzoigwe applies his knowledge of Igbo drumming to the keyboard, performed here at Boston Conservatory in Berklee by pianist Kevin Madison:

Composer for Every Country: Benin

While the borders of today's Benin encompass a number of pre-colonial tribal and imperial zones, there's one in particular I want to address: the Kingdom of Dahomey. This Kingdom was made up of the Fon ethnic people and they controlled a chunk of the southern coastal area of Benin-to-be from about 1600 to 1894 when they lost the Second Franco-Dahomean War and became a protectorate of France. They were a very militaristic kingdom, their military including both men and women, and fought with two of their political rivals, the Oyo Empire and the city-state Porto-Novo, to control gold mines in the area.

They also caught and sold slaves. They were usually war prisoners or criminals who, for whatever reason, weren't chosen for their rituals involving human sacrifice. I'm not particularly equipped to deal with any nuances of the Kingdom of Dahomey's slave trade, but I bring it up for a couple of reasons - first, it does a disservice to the victims of atrocities to flinch away and ignore the worst elements of human history; second, and related, there are not a few foolhearted Euro-Americans who, out of ignorance or spite or both, cling onto African slavery as a smokescreen to deflect responsibility away from European and American crimes against humanity.

So the Kingdom of Dahomey made money by selling slaves? Ok, that's bad. But you know what? It was the Europeans and Americans who bought and sold them again, and they kept the receipts. In an uncommon instance of an African-American being able to trace their ancestry back to a particular place, the show Roots found that musician Ahmir Khalib Thompson was descended from a slave on the boat of one William Foster, the captain of the last slave ship taking slaves from the Kingdom of Dahomey to the US as part of a bet made by Timothy Meaher that he could sell them after Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1808. Take a moment to let the full implications of that story sink in, and then we'll move on to more pleasant topics.

There's more to Benin than slavery, of course. Due to the country's low literacy rate, oral tradition is still alive and well, and the country has a flourishing and diverse music scene. Everything from native tribal music, Ghanian highlife, French cabaret, rock, reggae, rumba are all played in the country. For a time in the 1970's, Benin was one of the premier hotspots for funk in Africa. During my searches for Beninese music, I also came across a number of artists who are still creating new music within tribal styles and genres, which is cool to see.

During the course of writing about Africa, it occurred to me I hadn't come across anything resembling an avant garde, whatever that may mean to Africa. While I haven't found anything like that in music so far (at least, in sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa is a different story), there's plenty of visual artists and clothing designers across the continent who are experimenting with what their cultures have to offer, and what it means to be a citizen of whatever country they are in when the borders of them are so blatantly artificial. In 2010, Benin's Ministry of Culture initiated a Biennial Foundation project called Regard Benin. You can check out some of the results of the 2012 exhibit at their website here:

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Today's composer is Lionel Loueke (b.1973). A guitarist and vocalist, Mr. Loueke started guitar at 17, working for a year to earn the $50 needed to buy the instrument. Poverty compelled him to try and find solutions to the problem of replacing strings, using everything from vinegar to clean his strings to using bicycle brake cables (not recommended, they broke his guitar neck). In 1990, he went to the National Art Institute in Côte d'Ivoire, then the American School of Music in Paris, Berklee College of Music, and finally the Thelonious Monk Institute (now known as the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz). 

The list of musicians he has worked with is extensive, but he currently belongs to a jazz trio called Gilfema with Massimo Biolcati (Swedish-Italian) and Ferenc Nemeth (Hungarian). The song posted is "Wishes," from his second album Mwaliko.