James Brown was well loved all over West Africa in the 1960s and 70s; Cameroon was no exception. What's becoming a bit more well-known is that one of the Godfather's minor mid-seventies hits, “Hustle,” itself titled to cash in on some of Van McCoy's “Do the Hustle” fame, was snagged hook, line, and sinker from Cameroonian Andre-Marie Tala's “Hot Koki.” This track, Manu Dibango's massive 1972 hit “Soul Makossa”- which not only exploded stateside, but led to Michael Jackson snagging its lyrical tag for his 1982 smash “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin”- and the pop experimentalism of Francis Bebey tend to complete many westerners' later 20th century Cameroonian musical reference points. Pop Makossa is now here to bring attention back to a number of other important figures who helped put Makossa on the map in the first place. The term itself translates from the Cameroonian Ko to “fall” and “dance,” and an immersion in the sounds collected here show just why this term stuck. Makossa is often a slick, disco-related dance form that is no less substantial for those traits. It may suffer from period production here and there, but this collection presents it as relentless club music. Nobody sat still to this stuff.
The music has its roots in the Sawa people in and around Douala, the country's capital. Their rhythm patterns, such as Assiko and Bolobo eventually came to mix with Congolese Rhumba- which, thanks to Kinshasa's powerful radio signals, found its way to Douala- as well as Dominican Merengue and Ghanian highlife, to ultimately form yet another African pop rhythm hybrid. What's clear from a few listens to say, Mystic Djim & the Spirits “Yaounde Girls,” is that for the years that Makossa put Cameroon on the world map, the capital, as well as the more centrally located city of Yaounde, had massive club scenes and an original musical style as a soundtrack to urban night life.
The tracks here, aside from the highly influential Mystic Djim, feature Eko, Nkodo Si-Tony, and Bill Loko, all of whom achieved notoriety not only at home, but in Paris, where many Cameroonian musicians formed L'Equipe National du Makossa, a studio ensemble responsible for cranking out some 50 gold records a year during their heyday. In fact, Loko's “Nen Lambo,” featured here, was huge in Paris. However, it may be this compilation's least well-aged track. It's overly slick, with washes of cheap synth. Goofier, but ultimately more radical is Pasteur Lappe's “Sanaga Calypso,” with its fart-y synth stutters and clunky, robotic, distorted guitar. There's likely little else recorded in all of Africa at the time that sounded like this track.
Perhaps unfortunately, the only track here to revel in the rawness in which many Analogue Africa releases traffic is lead off tune, “Pop Makossa Invasion,” by Dream Stars. This record gives the listener a sense of what might have happened to this music had the Paris studios and the fame that came to so many of Makossa's performers never materialized. It packs a much harder punch, with guitar riffs full of space, depth, and reverb that nothing else here musters. But once one gets past the shock of the slick, there's nothing more celebratory or unifying as Eko's straight-up disco “M'ongele M'am.” It's sheer fun and contains an urgent horn line that insists on movement, a vocal line to match, as well as a groove that calls for celebration as enlightenment.
And of course, the booklet is a wealth of material, with surviving musicians' own stories and a deep sense of a thriving scene at a particular time.