Bebey, Francis 1929–2001
Francis Bebey 1929–2001
Novelist, poet, musicologist, musician, storyteller
Cameroonian-born Francis Bebey (pronounced bay-BAY) was a man of many talents. He rose through the ranks of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to become head of the music department at the Information Services branch in Paris. At the same time, Bebey published poetry and novels and a seminal study of western African music. Bebey, an accomplished guitarist, baritone, and composer, also performed African-inspired music at venues worldwide and made more than a dozen recordings. His musical activities helped preserve and disseminate African-inspired music and earned him the sobriquet “Father of World Music.”
The son of a Christian minister, Francis Bebey was born on July 15, 1929, near Douala, Cameroon, which was then a French and British protectorate. He grew up learning the French language and western musical traditions in school. As a youth Bebey sampled the accordion, violin, piano, and mandolin before settling by age nine on the guitar. Though he learned western music, Bebey was also attracted to the village shaman, an elderly man who played an old harp, a mouth-bow, and intoned ancient chants in the native language, Douala. While the Christian elders of the village believed the man to be in league with the devil, “to me he represented something else,” Bebey told Jason Berry of New Orleans Magazine, “the reality of Africa, the importance of the past.” Thus Bebey embraced his native music, cherishing and working to preserve it throughout his life.
As a teenager living in the capital city of Douala, Bebey played guitar and drums with a popular Cameroonian dance band and became acquainted with such international musical styles as AfroCuban and American swing and jazz. Bebey won a scholarship to study languages at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he also studied literature and discovered the works of Cameroonian novelists Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Béti. While in Paris, he became inspired by the classical guitar music of Spanish virtuoso Andres Segovia and tried to emulate his ability to create many different sounds with the guitar.
By the end of the 1950s, Bebey was a radio journalist/producer with Radiodiffusion Outre-Mer (now Radio-France Internationale) in Paris and the leader of a Parisian jazz band. When he moved to the United States in 1958 to study mass communications at New York University, Bebey continued his musical career, composing guitar music. Upon his return to Paris three years later, he helped create a radio station in Ghana and became the host of the popular radio program “Jazz Train” at Radiodiffusion Outre-Mer. Bebey then began researching and tracking traditional African music for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), traveling around sub-Saharan Africa to make field recordings of native music. While working as a program specialist for UNESCO, Bebey realized that there was no literature on the history of radio in Africa. He filled the gap himself, writing his first book La Radiodiffusion en Afrique Noire, published in 1963.
Born on July 15, 1929, in Douala, Cameroon; died on May 28, 2001, in Paris, France; married Jacqueline Edinguele, August 14, 1956; children: Eyidi, Christiane, Fanta, Francis, Patrick. Education: Sorbonne, Paris, France; New York University, Religion: Protestant.
Career; Radiodiffusion Outre-mer, Paris, France, radio producer and journalist, 1957-61; UNESCO, Paris, program specialist, 1961-74; freelance writer, musicologist, concert guitarist, composer, 1963-2001.
Membership: Cercle Renaissance, Association des Ecrivains de Langue Française, Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique (S.A.C.E.M.).
Awards: Association des Ecrivains de langue Française, Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire, 1968, for Le Fils d’Agatha Moudio; S.A.C.E.M., Paris, Prix Jeune Chanson, 1977, for “La Condition Masculine”; Société Civile pour l’Œuvre et la Mémoire d’Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Prix Saint Exupéry, 1994, for L’Enfant-Ptuie.
Soon after the publication of La Radiodiffusion en Afrique Noire, Bebey began to produce poems and novels that reflected his experiences and observations in Africa. In 1967 he published a critical, yet humorous, novel, Le fils d’Agathe, translated as Agatha Moudio’s Son in 1971, which recounts the misadventures of a young Cameroonian man who makes a series of bad marriages. The novel won the Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire. Noting that Bebey “was close to his readers,” George Ola-Davies commented in the London Independent, that his “novels demonstrate his close observation of society’s strengths and weaknesses.”
The culmination of Bebey’s African musical research was published in 1969 as Musique de l’Afrique (African Music: A People’s Art). The study included a sound recording which introduced readers to the sounds and forms of various types of western African music. Although faulting Bebey for neglecting the music of eastern, central, and southern Africa, Gary Giddins commented in the New York Times Book Review that “Bebey eloquently pleads for a broad dissemination of unmodernized tribal music while hinting only tenuously at the impact it has already had on world-wide music.” Bebey continued his musical preservation work with UNESCO, helping to produce two more collections of traditional African music: Atlas Musical and Sources Musicales.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Bebey produced a handful of literary works, including the short story and verse collection Embarras et cie, and the novels Trois petits cireurs and Le Roi Albert d’Effidi, the later translated as King Albert. In his novel La Poupée ashanti, translated as The Ashanti Doll, Bebey recounts the love affair of an Ashanti market girl, who lives with her grandmother, and a government worker. Bebey’s literary works have been the subject of study by scholars, who have analyzed themes of reconciliation, sociopolitical relations, his depiction of strong women, and his use of narrative techniques. Yet by the turn of the millennium, Bebey’s literary works were largely out of print.
In 1974 Bebey retired from UNESCO to concentrate on his writing and musical activities. Bebey began performing for as many as six months of the year. With an easy manner and rich baritone voice, he would create an intimate atmosphere in the concert hall, introducing his songs with a tale, a poem, or a philosophical text, in the manner of the griot, or councilor-musician-historian. Bebey frequently appeared with his sons Francis, Jr., nicknamed Toops, and Patrick, who had inherited their father’s musical talent.
To produce his own recordings Bebey founded his own record label in the 1970s, Ozileka, which he ran from a home studio at a time when home studios were rare. In addition to making his own recordings, he produced some twenty works of other artists. His 1972 recording La Condition masculine, in which he satirizes a man who complains about his “liberated” wife, became one of his most popular recordings. During the 1990s Bebey released such albums as Django Prface (in honor of French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt), Mwana O, Sourire de lune, and Travail au noir on his own label.
As early as the late 1970s, Bebey researched the music of African pygmees, what he called “one of our greatest musical treasures,” according to Africa News Service. Bebey incorporated pygmee music into modern compositions, composing pieces for such traditional African instruments as the sanza (the thumb piano, also known as the mbira, kalimba likembe, and marimba) and the ndewhoo (the pygmy one-note flute). His creation came to be known as Afropop or World Music, a combination of traditional African and Western genres. Bebey’s music sampled Latin, jazz, African, and Asian rhythms, African instrumental sounds, and French, English, and Douala lyrics.
A free spirit where music is concerned, Bebey did not consider the commercial aspects of the business of music important. “Above all I wanted to have fun making the music that I wanted when I wanted,” Bebey told Jean-Jacques Dufayet of France Radio International. “I let myself go. If there is an audience to travel the same road with me, even the most rocky road, what joy. If not, I can always go alone.” Although Bebey began composing African-inspired music at a time when many people of African heritage did not value their roots, he saw that valuation change over time.
Always stretching the boundaries of his musical talent, Bebey composed a piece for the Kronos Quartet, a San Francisco-based string quartet, in 1994, and in 1998 he performed before a full house in a program called “Africa at the Opera” with the Cologne Philharmonic in Germany.
Coinciding with his seventieth birthday, Bebey’s albums Dibiye and Mbira Dance, which present a representative sampling of his work, went on the market. His song, “Sabat Mater Dolorosa” is indicative its creator’s polyglot heritage and recurring theme of love. In it he uses Douala, French, and English to sing about loving people despite their differences.
Bebey continued a rigorous touring schedule to the end. Resting at home in Paris after a tour of Italy, Bebey died of a heart attack on May 28, 2001. Bebey’s work did not die with him; the Association Francis Bebey has dedicated itself preserving Bebey’s memory and safeguarding his musical and literary work by conducting research, organizing programs and concerts on African music and literature, and translating, publishing, and disseminating Bebey’s works.
Concert pour un vieux masque, Philips, 1968.
Guitare d’une autre rime, Pathé, 1972.
Savannah Georgia, Decca/Fiesta, 1975.
La condition masculine, Ozileka, 1976, reprised, 1991.
Ballades africaines, Ozileka, 1978.
Prière aux masques, Ozileka, 1980.
Akwaaba, Music for Sanza, Ceddia, 1988.
La lune dans un seau tout rouge, Ceddia, 1988.
Paris Dougou, Ozileka, 1990.
Amaya, Ceddia, 1991.
Django Preface, Ozileka, 1992.
Mwana O, Ozileka, 1994.
Nandolo/With Love (selections from 1963 to 1994), Original Music, 1995.
The Queen of Sheba, Ozileka, 1996.
Travail au noir, Ozileka, 1997.
Dibiye, Pee Wee, 1998.
The Magic Box (includes “O bia,” “Engome,” and “Magic Box”), Sony Classical, 2001.
La Radiodiffusion en Afrique Noire, Editions Saint-Paul, 1963.
(Contributor) An Anthology of African and Malagasy Poetry in French, Clive Wake, ed., Three Crowns Press, 1965.
Le Fils d’Agatha Moudio (novel), Editions CLE, 1967; published as Agatha Moudio’s Son, Heinemann, 1971, Lawrence Hill, 1973.
Embarras et cie: Nouvelles et poèmes (stories and poems), Editions CLE, 1968.
Musiqe de l’Afrique, with recordings, Horizons de France, 1969; published as African Music: A People’s Art, Lawrence Hill, 1975.
Nouvelle saison des fruits, Nouvelles Editions africaines, 1980.
Contes de style moderne (stories), Balafon, 1985.
La lune dans un seau tout rouge (stories), Hatier, 1989.
Le ministre et le griot (novel), Editions Sépia, 1992.
L’Enfant-Pluie (novel; title means “Rain Child”), Editions Sépia, 1994.
Congrès de griots à KanKan (play), Lausanne, Switzerland, 1995.
Ogungbesan, Kolawole, ed., New West African Literature, Heinemann, 1979.
Riesz, Janos, and Alain Ricard, eds., Semper Aliquid Novi: Littérature comparée et littératures d’Afrique, Narr, 1990.
Tagne, David Ndachi, Francis Bebey, L’Harmattan, 1993.
Africa News Service, May 29, 2001, p. 1008149u3613.
College Language Association Journal, March 1984, pp. 332-342.
Film Quarterly, Spring 1991, pp. 54-57.
French Review, April 1996, pp. 842-843.
Independent (London, England), May 31, 2001, p. 6.
Jeune Afrique, April 1, 1977, p. 6-34.
L’Afrique Littéraire, January 1969, pp. 38-40.
Language Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1985, pp. 41-43.
Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2001, p. B-9.
New Orleans Magazine, October 2001, p. 38.
New Yorker, January 21, 1974; August 15, 1977.
New York Times, February 13, 1995, p. C15; June 7, 2001, p. C21.
New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1975; July 17, 1977.
Times Literary Supplement, March 3, 1972; August 15, 1975.
Whole Earth Review, July 1985, pp. 65-66.
World Literature Today, Fall 1977; Summer 1982.
Association Francis Bebey, www.bebey.com (March 26, 2004).
“Francis Bebey,” Afropop, www.afropop.org (March 26, 2004).
“Francis Bebey,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 26, 2004).
“Francis Bebey,” Radio France Internationale, www.rfimusique.com/ (March 26, 2004).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
"Bebey, Francis 1929–2001." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bebey-francis-1929-2001
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