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Francis Bebey - African Electronic Music 1975-1982

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Artist: Francis Bebey

Album: African Electronic Music 1975-1982

Label: Born Bad

Review date: Aug. 17, 2012

Francis Bebey was never one for rest. The Cameroonian native had already lived a full life as an accomplished academic attending the Sorbonne (for English) and NYU (for journalism and media studies), radio correspondent in Ghana and later for SORAFOM, award-winning novelist, and even sculptor by the time his first album of music came out in the late 1960s. A rare talent, Bebey was also relentless as an artist in general and, more specifically, as a musician. His father was a Protestant minister who appreciated the Western classical canon and exposed Francis to a wide range of music early; as such, Bebey was exposed to European and American instruments like the accordion and banjo as much as traditional instruments like the mouth bow his pals were playing.

Given this willingness to try out so many instruments and a natural sponge-like ability to soak up influences and new directions, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bebey plugged in and gave electronic keyboards, organs and drum machines a go in the late ’70s. African Electronic Music 1975-1982 is a compilation that gives some shine to a facet of the man’s vast discography that may otherwise be easy to pass by without context. Paris-based Born Bad’s efforts should be appreciated.

It’s worth noting, however, that this stuff isn’t as hard to find as one may initially be led to believe. A little hunting reveals that a third of these songs appear in some form on 1982’s Pygmy Love Song alone. Pygmy Love Song came in the final year of the presented span where Bebey was utilizing everything from synths to “sound on sound” recording techniques to different languages (English, French and the Bantu language Duala all feature here) in addition to the more traditional material of 1978’s Ballades Africaines or 1980’s live Afrikanischer Frühing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Born Bad was lazy in its presentation, though. On the contrary, many of the songs on Pygmy Love Song appear earlier in his discography anyway — see, for instance, “Fleur Tropicale” from the 1976 LP of the same name or “Tiers Monde” from 1979’s Un Petit Ivoirien. You also get the entire second side of 1982’s New Track in the title-track, which opens this compilation, and the ponderous “Super Jungle.” Both songs strike me as equally fascinating for different reasons: “New Track” opens as an eight-minute socially minded groover that should be half as long but still delights in small doses, juxtaposing the first chorus (“I want some bananas, some water and dance on the new track”) with the first verse’s line (“It is my belief that there is something wrong with that system”) in a memorably simple melody. It’s Bebey’s electronic explorations in a nutshell.

“Super Jungle,” on the other hand, is an instrumental jam clocking in north of nine minutes that sounds less disposable on repeat listens, perhaps because of its lack of lyrics. Impressive enough back to back, Born Bad’s sequencing does Bebey a favor here by breaking up these and other long songs by sprinkling them in among the easier listens, stuff like the ultra-poppy “The Coffee Cola Song” or charmingly breezy “Fleur Tropicale.” I also keep returning to “Agatha,” where his deep, rich laugh never fails to delight. The guy sounds like he’s having a ball and it’s easily my favorite song here.

African Electronic Music 1975-1982 is a deceptively smart compilation sequenced at least as well as Bebey’s own albums which, for someone who’s discovering this side of him for the first time, helps show how far Francis was willing to stray from his roots. If the prospect of a limitlessly talented artist workshopping with a dingy drum machine and a few keyboards sounds tantalizing but you prefer high quality recordings and a 16-page booklet over Awesome Tapes From Africa rips, you’d be a fool to pass this up.

By Patrick Masterson

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