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Bikutsi: a musical genre from the equatorial forest of Cameroon
Today, this music, although drowned in cultural mix-ups, still retains its original sound which is easily recognizable from the first notes of the introduction.
By François Essomba VOL. 13 SEPTEMBER 2021 ·2021-08-30

The mythical group known as Les Têtes Brûlées recognizable by its eccentric makeup. The late Zanzibar is present in the second row (center) 

Bikutsi is an ethnic dance practiced by the Beti people who live mainly in Cameroon's Central Region. In Ewondo, the local language spoken in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, the rhythm is pronounced "Biakut si," meaning "we hit the ground," usually danced by making undulations of the upper and lower limbs of the body to a tempo amplified by synchronized instruments, resulting in a frenetic and very lively rhythm.

Over time, Bikutsi has undergone both an evolution and a revolution, in the lyrics and resonance of the melodies, becoming a globally recognized rhythm. This musical evolution is owed to certain legends of the genre, such as Messi Martin, Ange Ebogo, Anne Marie Ndzié, and Elanga Maurice who were able to give Bikutsi pre-eminence in the Cameroonian musical world of the 1960s and 1970s.

However, it was in the 1990s that Bikutsi experienced its true international development with the mythical group Les Têtes Brûlées, whose first appearance on national television in 1987 was a real success. A nugget of musical creation, it included Théodore Epémé Zoa, alias Zanzibar, the group's guitarist and playing leader, who unfortunately died too early. Despite his death that sent shockwaves in the group, Les Tête Brûlées continued to please fans with their talent and also with their eccentric costumes, their half-shaved heads and the white paint on their bodies. Bikutsi then benefited from wider visibility and an international reputation: The group was invited to perform on tours in Africa, Europe, the U.S. and even Japan.

During the French tour in 1988, director Claire Denis, who had noticed the group in Yaoundé, decided to follow them on their tour and made the documentary film called Man No Run in 1989. The group also accompanied the Cameroon national soccer team during its brilliant show in the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Today, this music, although drowned in cultural mix-ups, still retains its original sound which is easily recognizable from the first notes of the introduction.

Bikutsi dancers in traditional dress

Origins and role of women

According to the Beti elders, Bikutsi originated from women. It is said that the Beti people, like other Bantu peoples, are a patriarchal society where only men had the right to speak. Beti women were not allowed to speak in public or in front of men, nor were they allowed to express their opinions. This situation was considered unacceptable and unjust. To get around this prohibition, they used to organize festive gatherings where they sang songs to denounce the infidelities of their husbands, heal ailments, soothe the pain of the loss of a loved one, and relieve sorrows, frustrations and suffering. Each woman clapped her hands while singing to the acclamation of the other women who took up the refrains in unison, stamping their feet in rhythm.

Later, men took these rhythms and infused them with various elements of traditional acoustics, consisting mainly of initiation dances and certain musical instruments.

Subsequently, Bikutsi has been largely feminized, with emblematic figures such as Catherine Edoa Ngoa, alias K-Tino, also nicknamed "the Woman of the People," to a pleiade of young artists such as Lady Ponce, Majoie Ayi, Mani Bella, Letis Diva or Sally Nyolo, all of whom have beautiful and captivating melodies in their repertoires.

Catherine Edoa Ngoa, alias K-Tino

A nuanced perception

Today, Bikutsi is still a huge success that does not seem to be waning any time soon, thanks to the rhythm's ability to adapt to technological change. This rhythm displays a consistency that makes it easy to identify, thanks in particular to its lead guitar, the sound of the balafon, the backing vocals and the bass guitar.

Beyond the rhythmic percussion that captivates fans of Cameroonian music, there are also the themes proposed in the lyrics revolving around social issues such as love and marriage.

Thus, the opinions on this music are almost identical within Cameroon. According to Anong Alémao, a journalist and coordinator of several media outlets in Yaoundé, Bikutsi is a rhythm that had its golden age in the 1990s, particularly with Les Têtes Brûlées, as well as musicians such as Nkodo Sitony, Mbarga Soukouss, Zélé le Bombardier, Sala Bekono, Abanda Aviateur, K-Tino, Lady Ponce and Majoie Ayi. This music has earned a good reputation, but it sometimes hits the wrong notes with the current emphasis on the perversion of morals, a salacious message that indeed does not go well with an overwhelming majority of people.

However, this musical genre still holds the road thanks to talented lyricists, like Aijo Mamadou. To spread its international influence, this music needs to be rethought just like Makossa which is losing momentum.

For his part, John Ibe, a Nigerian businessman who has been in Cameroon for more than 30 years, said that Bikutsi is distinguished by its wonderful and dynamic rhythm, which many music lovers appreciate. It is music that is well exported internationally. But to achieve this in the long term, some adjustments are necessary to align it with contemporary musical trends. Bikutsi will then make its comeback and flourish again.

For Germaine Ngo Holl, Journalist and Secretary of the weekly newspaper Le Démocrate Infos, Bikutsi is a piece of rhythmic and danceable music, which makes the beautiful days of the partygoers and which highly values the Cameroonian culture in its diversity. However, the young generation, in wanting to innovate, sometimes indulges in perversion. This is certainly due to a fashion effect characterizing the current society, preferring messages that go beyond the initial framework that once determined the awareness of morals in Cameroonian society. The musicians of the new generation should not leave the path trodden by their elders who have left them a very rich heritage.

(Reporting from Cameroon)

(Printed Edition Title: Music as a Medium)

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