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Timeline: Francis Bebey (1929-2001)

Timeline: Francis Bebey
This is the flag of Cameroon, the home of composer Francis Bebey, an influential composer who mixed genres and styles in new and interesting ways.

We continue our series on African composers by exploring the life, music and legacy of Cameroonian composer, Francis Bebey.

"Hello Francis" is a piece by guitarist John Williams. It’s a tribute to Francis Bebey a 20th century composer from Cameroon. There is also a song called "Everything Now" by the band Arcade Fire. In this work they are quoting yet another song "The Coffee Cola" by Francis Bebey. The traditional flute in the Arcade Fire recording was performed by Bebey’s son, Patrick. We share these examples to show the wide influence that Francis Bebey still has on popular and classical music. Bebey has been called the father of World Music.

Francis Bebey was born in Douala, Cameroon in 1929. He fell in love with the guitar at a young age, especially the music of Andres Segovia. Even though Bebey was playing with bands as a teenager, he ended up going to college to study mathematics. He later traveled to Paris and then New York to pursue degrees in broadcasting. In 1957, he moved to Ghana to begin a career in that field.

He changed his mind in the early 60s and moved to Paris to become an artist. Bebey was active in many different mediums. He was a musician, a sculptor and a writer of poetry, short-stories, non-fiction and novels. As a writer, Bebey found success in his long-form fiction. His first novel Agatha Moudio’s Son won a grand prix in Paris.

By day, Bebey worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where he served as the head of their music department in Paris. He used this position to study and promote African music.

When he wasn’t working for the UN, Bebey was creating music on his own. He set up his own recording studio in his apartment and began producing albums on his own label. He released over 20 records, performing almost all of the instrumentation himself. Bebey’s music merged Cameroonian makoosa (literally dance music) with classical guitar, jazz and popular styles, especially electronica. Bebey was a pioneer of the use of synthesizers and drum machines, placing these modern electronic instruments alongside traditional African harps, flutes and percussion.

In a 1982 interview, Francis Bebey stated, “what I’m aiming to do is to use Western technology to invigorate African music and spread its message internationally.” He believed that embracing innovation would breathe new life into African art and would demonstrate, in his words, “the triumph of humanism and universality over esoteric sterility.” Meaning, he wanted to see African artistic expression develop and not just be maintained or preserved. For Bebey, the idea that African music was incapable of changing or evolving in response to foreign influence or technological advancement was deeply racist; that was his word for it. Bebey believed it was possible to innovate without destroying the essential qualities of a culture’s music and artistic identity.

Francis Bebey passed away in Paris in 2001; his recordings and his influence on artists around world lives on.

Learn more about Cameroonian composer Francis Bebey and follow the Timeline.

James Stewart is VPR Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.