The Douala word Makossa is a neologism from the root word Kossa, which in the Douala language refers to a children’s hand clapping dance. The nomenclature of this genre of popular urban Cameroonian music has been attributed to composer, guitarist, bandleader and performer Nelle Eyoum, who with his band Los Calvinos, Guillaume Mouelle, Ebanda Manfred, Epée Mbende Richard in the late 1950s, would lay the rudimentary skeletal structures, rhythmical form and compositional foundations of the music that will evolved and subsequently become Makossa as a musical genre. Other schools of thought have equally attributed its origin as rooted in the Spanish word Cosa (the Thing) often used in Cuban Rumba (Nago Seck 2014), as early Latin American rumba music filtered into Douala via Radio, vinyl records and interactions with Congo and Zaire musicians such as Wendo Kosoloy (with whom Nelle Eyoum played as a guitarist), were pivotal in the gestation period in the early development of Makossa as an urban musical genre.
Makossa is used today to denote and describe the genre of popular music that emerged within the urban spaces of Douala prior to the era of independence and equally to music performed nationally today in Cameroon which adheres to Makossa’s stylistic form, structure, melodic and harmonic idiom.
Makossa is a popular musical genre that emerged in Douala, a coastal city and an economic capital of Cameroon in central Africa in the late 19th century.
Makossa developed, expanded and evolved into one of the most popular and ubiquitous modern musical genre in Cameroon, it’s influences, shaping and altering the musical discourse in the country for more than half a century, even expanding beyond the national borders into other parts of west and central Africa. It was disseminated to audiences via television, radio, the latest technological and communication interfaces, performed in stadiums, nightclubs, bars, social gatherings by bands or solo artist all over Cameroon and beyond.
The term Makossa was first coined by Nelle Eyoum in the late 1950s with reference to a children’s hand clapping dance, called Kosa in the Douala language.
Makossa’s motivic music DNA can be traced on the genealogical map of modern African music to highlife and palm wine music which came from port cities along the west coast of Africa and Congolese and Zairian rumba (Collins, 1985). It is a rhizomic evolutionary offshoot of the musical confluence that arose out of the revolutionary contact between the West and Sub Saharan Africa during the scramble for Africa in the late 18th century. The colonial era brought along an inevitable introduction of new and variegated cultural ideas and expressions, intellectual concepts, religious values as well as radical and disruptive technologies from Europe, interfacing directly with African societies. The results were a spontaneous burst and explosions of a plethora of newer musical forms and modes of expressions along the coast of west and central Africa.
This intersection point and junction between old Africa and a new world of modernity, produced an entirely new auditory, and visual frontiers, a sensory experiential interface which will culminated in a wide array of artistic and contemporary forms of west central African expressions hitherto unknown before. Thus was born a new cultural era along the entire coast of west and central Africa.
Makossa music emerged out of this milieu and cultural flux of new experimental and experiential realms that was revolutionizing the entire continent.
This cultural, industrial, intellectual, religious, social and economic revolutions on the African continent at the turn of the early 19th century equally caused and set in motion seismic transformations within the entire societal and environmental dynamics, interactions and movements of people, ideas and things. The results were an emergent new societal stratification of people, societies and institutions. Civil servants, merchants, business people, migrant workers and entirely new urban ecological spaces, such as theatres, cinemas, bars, rudimentary recording studios, radio stations, commercial shops, social clubs became ubiquitous and formed the basis, milieu and incubatory crucible of an emergent form of cultural expressions on the artistic realm.
Makossa came into being as a distinctive musical style with an infantile identity and idioms, style and mode of expression in the early 1930s with the propagation of European musical instruments such a guitars, accordions, tamborines, which came in via missionaries and colonial administrators, in conjecture with the African guitar playing styles, techniques and music of kru mariners.
These influx of instruments and musical ideas filtered to the local population and influenced & affected the development of music in the city of Douala. Kru sailors came into the city when their merchants ships docked in the port city of Douala from Lagos, Nigeria via Cotonou in Benin, Monrovia in Liberia and Free Town in Sierra Leone. From Congo Brazzaville and the former Zaire came migrant workers, business people, musicians, travelers who also brought along another stream of new musical influences.
Through these interactions, local musicians soon picked up this new wave of music and influences and integrated them with their own existing musical structures and forms. The result was a new form of music that ignited and caught the fancy and imagination of city dwellers.
Record companies and labels such as Pathe and Ngoma introduced commercial recordings, vinyl records and persuaded local artists to record for an emerging urban market in Douala the economic hub and Yaounde the capital city of Cameroon, cities which were becoming the convergence points for various migrating groups of people gravitating towards them for new opportunities. This gestational phase and period saw the emergence of a plethora of local artists and groups, prominent within this period was Tobo Eitel, whose early recordings reflected the rudimentary and raw skeletal form & structure of future Makossa.
The gestation phase defined the idiomatic imprint of a call & response motif, verse and chorus pattern, with evocative and persuasive lyrical vocals alluding of rural life, the surreal nature of a constructed city life of it’s new inhabitants.
This early phase saw musicians experimenting, extruding and fusing thematic motifs from their ethnic musical heritages.
Early recordings such as Ndola Jomba by Tobo Eitel, portrayed Makossa’s experimental structure & form, reflecting the variegated influences of Congolese rumba, highlife music and the 12/8, 4/4, 6/8 rhythmical idiom of traditional Douala music. These early recordings featured rudimentary musical instrumentation of vocals, two guitars, congas, standup acoustic bass and percussion.
The birth of modern Makossa in the 1950s, coincided with the era of postcolonialism and independence, which was a time of huge societal upheavals, changes and transformations in the country with the winds of nationalism and Pan Africanism ushering in a hitherto unbeknownst modes of expressions. Cross pollination of musical, intellectual, literal and artistic ideas, movement of people and the proliferation of communication interfaces with the advent of radio broadcasting in the early 1950s across the continent forged a new beginning on many cultural frontiers.
This period saw an evolutionary leap in orchestration & instrumentation and an amalgamative phase which saw the integration of variegated motivic imagery from literature, poetry, politics and the human condition in society.
By the early 1960s Makossa had developed distinctly away from its earlier external influences, prominent bands would emerged, such as Orchestre Uvocot Jazz formed by guitarist and composer Epée Mbende Richard, whose seminal works were canonical standards for subsequent motivic rhythmic and melodic evolution of Makossa. These period also saw the emergence of artist such as Alias Mamadou, Mouelle Guillaume, Ebanda Manfred, Nelle Eyoum of Los Calvinos whose seminal works began defining & giving Makossa its characteristics away from Merengue, Rumba & Highlife. Prominent musical groups within this era were l’Orchestre Orfecam Jazz, l’Orchestre Negro Styl, l’orchestre Cercul Jazz accompanying many of the local artists. Radio Douala and Radio Yaounde would be instrumental in recording and propagating Makossa within this Era. Record labels such as
Disques Africambiance, Ocora, Philips, local producers, new performance spaces would equally help in the propagation, wider dissemination and development of Makossa.
The late 60s and early 70s saw the emergence of artists like Manu Dibango, Eboa Lotin, Francis Bebey, Charles Lembe, Jean Dikoto Mandengue, Lobe Lobe Rameau, Ekambi Brillant.
Francis Bebey, Eboa Lotin and Manu Dibango, Charles Lembe would record master pieces during this era. Francis Bebey’s spirited piece, Pièces pour guitare seule, Eboa Lotin’s Muyengue Ma Ngando, Ekambi Brilliant’s N’gon Abo introduced composed and art music on the scene.
The early 70s saw the emergence of new orchestration techniques, lyrical imaging devices becoming more predominant in the textural composition of songs, variegated idioms integrating poetic and literal themes, new song writing techniques, new musical forms and textural devices being added, these influences were streaming in from the new sounds coming in from the Americas, via disco, jazz and the blues.
Manu Dibango, Francis Bebey, Eko Roosevelt, were the leading figures during this emergent mature phase of Makossa, their seminal works defining a new era of composed and art music. Idiba, Guitar Makossa, from Francis Bebey, Soul Makossa from Manu Dibango would defined the artistic brilliance, virtuosity, instrumental and orchestration mastery of musicians of this era.
A prominent musical group in the 70s was the Black Styl Orchestra, whose seminal works would dominate the musical scene up till the late 70s with a version of dance oriented Makossa. Emile Kangue, Nkotti Francoise, Toto Guillaume were prominent artists to have been schooled in the Black Styl Orchestra.
Toto Guillaume, a young guitarist will soon emerge during this era as a canonical figure of a different Makossa idiomatic school. His guitar virtuosity and song writing skills will shape & define Makossa music for the next two decades. Together with a team of Paris based instrumentalist and session musicians such as bassist Alhabji Toure, percussionist Ebeny Donald Wesley, Lobe Valerie, Jojo Kuo, Trombonist Kom Roger, Tete Ngando, Jimmy Mvondo, Belinga Bens, Tchounou Justin, classical arrangements with string sections and elements of western classical and jazz music will soon find their way into Makossa arrangements.
The 80s also saw another developmental phase in Makossa, with artist like Dina Bell, Ben Decca, Moni Bile, becoming household names.
Toto Guillaume’s Paï a Nyambe Makossa album recorded in 1983, was a culmination of an ambitious leap in orchestration, idiomatic structural shifts that superbly integrated classical music themes and motifs with Makossa idioms, together with Alhadji Toure, both artists will revolutionise Makossa with successive wave after wave of brilliant Makossa productions. Dina Bell’s Mbemba Iyo, Nje Mo Ye Qu’Est-Ce Que C’Est, Nginya Mulema, Ndedi Dibango , Epapala were seminal works highlighting Makossa’s serious intention. These works equally highlighted the wide poetical palette, tonal possibilities, harmonic and textural malleability of the Douala language in a classical setting or in the context of marrying two musical traditions of Africa and the West. Dina Bell, Moni Bile, Ndedi Dibango and others with their romantic and lyrical works sung in the Douala captured the imagination and devotion of an entire nation in the middle 80s of Makossa’s renaissance age.
Nguime Manulo introduced in this era a more complex virtuosic guitar playing style and a Makossa idiom featuring intricate polyphonic structures, tonal harmonic bipedaling, evocative, colourful lyrical guitar in interlocking ostinato patterns. His seminal works such as Mutaka Mam, and De Brousiller with artist Djene Djento stands out. Ndedi Eyango another young guitarist will also emerge with another structural idiomatic shift in tonic harmonisation emphasising a strong thematic dance imagery and motifs that will captivate audiences beyond the borders of Cameroon all the way from West to East Africa. San Fan Thomas will stretch the three chord progression of Makossa with an additional minor chord as a declination motif in Makossa’s chordal patterned progression to introduce yet another stylistic shift which he will call Makassi, winning devoted audience world wide. His seminal piece Afrique typic collection will find a receptive international audience world wide. Andre Marie Talla, Tim and Forty, Lapiro de Mbanga, Tchana Pierre, Pierre Didi Tchakounte, Claude Ndam, were also prominent figures throughout the Makossa era, working at it’s idiomatic peripherals with works that were a cross between Makossa and other local music idioms within Cameroon.
In the early 90s, Makossa saw a steady and continuous decline in its creative expressivity, productivity, quality and audience receptivity as it became a victim of its own proliferation, caught in a decaying grove of constant monotony, a non creative or adventurous spirit to rise above its own artistic threshold to find new challenging artistic frontiers. The introduction of television in 1986 in Cameroon introduced audiences nation wide to other forms of cultural expressions and audio visual experiences which will herald the decline of Makossa as a national music. Being mostly a studio production out of Paris with little or no live performances and therefore no artistic challenges, Makossa music soon faded and declined considerably without ever really reclaiming its former cultural status in Cameroon.
Richard Bona, Etienne Mbappe, Coco Mbassi, Henri Dikongue and a host of other new artists will break out unto newer frontiers and finding an entirely different artistic frontiers and genres to continue their Makossa roots and heritages.
Makossa evolved around a two/three finger acoustic guitar cyclic picking technique modulated on a two or three chord pattern harmonisation played in 4/4, 12/8, or 6/8 time. A motivic imagery inherited from Highlife and Palmwine guitar music, Congolese and Zairian rumba music, as well as from local performance and playing techniques adapted from local instruments.
Makossa’s basic song structure and form is typically sectional, a *strophic form* with a short introduction with guitar or entire band, followed by a verse chorus section, a bridge with the rhythm guitar soloing in the foreground the song’s thematic idiom often an accentuated dance motif imagery, then followed again by a verse chorus or a refrain section and finally a fading out.
Makossa principally, has been a guitar and vocals oriented music, augmented by percussive and bold melodic patterned bass lines, anchored on a layer of percussion beats in simple or double time. The rhythm guitar employs a harmonic triad chord progression often in C major or it’s dominant, alternating through C, D or alternating variations of G/C/D, C/F/G , C/G/D, E,C,E, chordal patterns played in recursive, propulsive cyclic format, with alternating single notes plucked for melodic emphasis, ornamentation and embellishment. The dexterous use of intervallic motifs, pauses and silence between notes and chords, for staccato effects simultaneously or parallel with arpeggio chordal effects creates the notion or allusions and ghosting effect of a complete band.
With this tonal, harmonic, melodic and idiomatic rhythmical imagery provided by the rhythm guitar, with it’s characteristic two/three finger guitar phrasal idiom, the effects are an evocative, colourful and lyrical sonority with bright interlocking ostinato patterns, which enables Makossa to be performed as a solo act or duet with vocal, or with the backing of a full band.
Makossa’s typical orchestration often includes a lead vocal with background chorus singing in unison in a call and response form or sometimes using an antiphonal motif, a rhythm and lead guitar, keyboard, electric bass, drum set, brass and rarely a string section for textural and ornamental coloration.
The Doula language in which Makossa is often sung, is a tonal language, whose tonality, figures of speech, proverbs and metaphors gives Makossa music it’s ebullient, melodic, exuberant texture and bright harmonic coloration. It’s added social and ethical constructs embodied in the language, it’s complex semantic implications, phonetic and syllabic text structures equally add subtle motivic textures and harmonies peculiar to the music. Autonomous phrase constructs can often act as a song’s melodic ornamentation or embellishments.
The music may employ lyrical and poetic vocals in a call and response format or a chant like repetitive motif in antiphonal patterns. Various other orchestral instruments are added to give the song it’s layered textures. Distinctive, pulsating, and staccato bass lines add accented melodic and percussive figurative patterns, with colourful brass lines that add a chorus like motif, a regular percussive beat that can be characterised as being in 12/8 on a rhythm meter provides the rhythmical foundation of the song.
The guitar is a rhythmic & melodic, imaging device that gives an elementary pulse unit to a song structure. On top of this can be added extremely complex autonomous phrase structures that reiterates recursively on this pulse unit. Makossa musicians have often experimented with western chordal patterns using local harmonic concepts and adapting that to create new harmonic forms for their songs.
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