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In Rotation: Francis Bebey's 'African Electronic Music, 1975-1982'

June 21, 2012 | 11:15 am

In Rotation: Francis Bebey's "African Electronic Music, 1975-1982." A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers and contributors are listening to right now...

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French label Born Bad has reissued an important collection of work by Cameroonian-born songwriter-protest singer Francis Bebey, who in his prime was one of the most visible purveyors of the rhythmic makossa music. The release offers a look at an underexamined corner of early electronic music. Bebey, a writer, poet and musician, traveled throughout his life, at various points living in both the United States and Ghana before ending up in Paris. He released 20 albums, many of them using acoustic instruments.

In the 1970s, however, Bebey secured an early synthesizer that he installed in his living room and on which he began composing. Over the next decade, he continued accumulating drum machines and other devices and created curious, magnetic sounds that used as their base the complicated rhythms of the makossa beat -- as crafted on electronic gear that changed the shapes and textures of the tones without affecting the propulsion.

The best tracks on “African Electronic Music” are those on which Bebey seems to be pushing at the edges of his new toys’ capacities. On “Savanah Georgia" (unconventionally spelled), for example, he crafts an instrumental that, were it performed on traditional instruments, might sound like cocktail hour at a ‘70s bachelor pad, but on the electronic organ is transformed into a buzzing, cosmic concoction. “Divorce Pygmee” is a synthetic lament, sung by Bebey in French, featuring sad yodeling and a wicked bass line. Be forewarned: The sounds on this collection at times sound positively alien, in a way that may take a few listens before your ears make the adjustment and begin to understand the dialects. But it’s a fascinating listen.

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-- Randall Roberts
Twitter: @liledit

Photo: Francis Bebey in his studio. Credit: Pierre René Worms

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