« Bebey has shown us that nothing is immutable »

Interview with Céléstin Monga, by Kidi Bebey and Olivier Barlet

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The past as an adaptable source of inspiration: after describing how much he has benefited from this enlightened notion, Cameroonian author, Célestin Monga examines Francis Bebey’s contribution to contemporary African thought.

What did Francis Bebey represent for you?
I was lucky enough to meet him when I was only 18 or 19. A Parisian newspaper that had interviewed him had unwisely published his address and phone number. I was studying in Bordeaux and I called – I didn’t know him – to ask him if he would read and comment on a text that I hadn’t as yet written. He didn’t hang up on me as he should have in the circumstances. Instead, with the sense of humour that he’s famous for, he asked me to call back when I had at least written the first draft. Continuing in my foolishness, I asked him if he could give me any ideas on the kind of thing I should write about. Once again, he was extremely patient and with great class, he simply told me something that I’ve never forgotten, « When your text is written, I will be able to tell you what I think. However, the most important thing is what you think about it because there is no single god when it comes to artistic creation ». You can imagine the impact of that kind of advice on the mind of an 18-19-year-old boy. Maybe Francis Bebey had unknowingly given me the licence I needed to write, that is, confidence in myself. Since, if there wasn’t any single god where artistic creation was concerned, I could create my own religion! You can therefore understand how endebted I am to him.
What did he represent for the Africans of your generation?
I belong to the generation born just after independence. I won’t try and speak for such a wide group but I would say that Francis Bebey, the musician, helped a lot of us shake our complexes by freeing us from the tyranny of choosing between « variety » (« modern » African music) and what we call African folklore. Before Francis Bebey, African musicians and music lovers had to conform to the insipid cacophony of variety, or become trapped in the fundamentalism of the embittered music of folklore… Forced to choose between the disorderly quest for a music that was artificially modern, and the bitterness of an outdated music based on folklore that noone was interested in, African musicians had reached a dead end. Bebey forged a new path by reconciling the different currents while retaining a certain originality (I hesitate to say « authenticity »). Although they may not know it, musicians such as Ray Lema and Lokua Kanza from Congo, Richard Bona from Cameroon, or Ugandan musician Samite, are descendants of his.
What aspects of his work did you most like?
His music – classical guitar – and his poetry. His works for solo guitar contain an emotional richness and technical complexity worthy of the great Baroque and Romantic composers. Nicolo Paganini, Heitor Villa-Lobos or even Atahualpa Yupanqui would probably have laid claim to certain of his compositions. For example, Black Tears, which is one of my favourites. I also like the atmosphere that the sanza creates on his album, Didiyé (1997), and the delicious melancholy of a ballad like Stabat Mater Dolorosa or the tragic serenity of Mandema. In my opinion, Concert pour un vieux masque is one of the best collections of poetry ever compiled in French. I would place it on the same level as Aimé Césaré’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. It had a huge impact on my own poetry. Some critics thought they detected the influence of Concert pour un vieux masque on my collection of poe entitled Fragments d’un crépuscule blessé. I have to confess I’m guilty, since I was strongly influenced by both Francis Bebey and Paul Dakeyo.
What do you most like in him?
I admired the elegance of his attitude and his tolerance, even where people who didn’t deserve his kindness were concerned. Like Jorge Luis Borges, he believed that anyone who feels a need to hide knows they are doing something wrong, and knowing it implies that they have at least made some intellectual progress, even if they haven’t progressed morally!
Was Bebey, the « celebrity », a model and a source of inspiration to you?
Without a doubt, even on an anecdotal level. For example, Francis Beby had a vigorous, warm handshake. He was the one who taught me that a handshake should be performed with the kind of input it deserves. Therefore, it should be decisive and not at all wishy-washy. When I first went to Lettonia, I was reminded of this little lesson in good manners when a Minister of that government complimented me on the « seriousness » and « directness » of my handshake. In Baltic countries, people consider that the nature and quality of a handshake tells much about a person’s character. On a more serious note, Francis Bebey inspired my approach to the past. He helped me shake my complexes about my personal relationship with the cultural history of my country and my continent. More than anyone, he [a valorisé]difference. It’s true that excessive emphasis on difference is often a sign of an underlying nationalism and racism. However, Bebey never fell into an obsessive search for the africanity in black art. On the contrary, he proved that difference and identity are simply two sides of the same coin. Do you remember what he said in one of his songs, Madona Vérona? « If I wasn’t black, how would you know that you’re white… »
You cite Concert pour un vieux masque at the top of the first chapter of your Anthologie de la colère. In your opinion, are Francis Bebey’s ideas essential to a reflection on identity and democracy in Africa today?
I admire the elegance and humanity in his way of confronting power. He does so with irony and respect, as did the griots in pre-colonial times. But that’s not my style because I think that the African leaders are so crazy and insensitive to the very idea of their own dignity that I doubt that overly subtle criticism like Francis Bebey’s will have much success. They almost need a blow to the head to set up a civilised dialogue with them… In his famous song O bia, which was re-used by Mano Dibango notably, Bebey talks to the conscience of the African leaders. « Don’t forget », he says, « that it’s to you that we’ve entrusted you with the keys to our home« . He uses humour to call to their intelligence. Unfortunately, he’s addressing people who have no conscience and who have deliberately denied their own intelligence. Even so, Bebey is an unrivalled storyteller, in the vein of Birago Diop, whom he admired very much. His humanity led him to give the political elite too much credit. He had too good a heart and believed too strongly in humankind to be able to measure the extent of the evil create and spread.
How has Francis Bebey contributed to your ideas on the subversiveness of African art?
A lot of African intellectuals approach reflection on art and culture with a blinding aggressiveness. They’re angry about the injustice and arbitrariness of History, about domination and exploitation and see African art simply as a battlefield, a way of gaining revenge. Some see art as being dressed in political and moral robes. The artificial dichotomy between tradition and modernity validated by several generals of intellectuals and African creators is the expression of the one-dimensional vision of art. The essays, interviews, practice and experience of Bebey’s art have helped me escape one-dimensionality. Bebey has taught us to express African art in the plural, to divest it of the misfortunes of History, the sociological and ethnological rags decorating it, and to celebrate it for what it is. Through Bebey we have learnt that beauty is not superfluous. The idea is obviously subversive and was expressed long before post-modernism became fashionable.
Isn’t his relationship with memory fundamental?
Yes. Because without the faculty of memory, we would lose our cognitive and conceptual abilities since we would be living solely in the present. We would only be capable of a poor imitation of thought. Robbed of our memories, we live for the moment, like the characters in Sony Labou Tansi’s novels. Through his works, Francis Bebey laid the foundations of an anthology of memory in Africa. He gave back to us the ability to remember. This ability is solely responsible for giving us the power to forget, which is vital to progressing in life. For example, by reinstating Pygmy polyphonies, or even by simply using the sanza, Bebey widened our imaginary. Today, in the majority of societies, there is a frenzied kind of worshipping of memory which is manifested by the general popularity of things relating to the past, such as commemorations, genealogy, historical texts, and so on. Without becoming extreme, Francis Bebey, understood how very much we need memory and how important it is that there exist a constant sedimentation of identities.
What aspect of his work would you most emphasize in trying to assess Francis Bebey’s contribution to his time?
His management of the past as a source of inspiration to invest the present and invent the future. Bebey has shown us that the past is malleable and that nothing is immutable. Paul Veyne wrote an amazing book on how the Greeks invented their myths. Although he wasn’t a historian, Francis Bebey was our historian and he reinstated epics and restored the dignity of our myths, which is pretty amazing for someone who lived in Paris for almost half a century. Oswaldo Ferrari wrote that, « the immensity of absence – its weight – is eventually felt spiritually like an infinite presence ». That’s what’s so paradoxical about Francis Bebey – the emptiness of his death ensures that he remains uppermost in our imaginary and renders his memory eternal.
Compiled by Kidi Bebey and Olivier Barlet

Célestin Monga (Cameroon) is a Senior Economist with the Europe and Central Asia Department of the World Bank in Washington (since 1997). He has written a number of texts and articles in the fields of economics and political science, including: Anthropology of Anger: Civil Society and Democracy in Africa (Boulder, Colorado, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1996). Works in French include Anthropologie de la colère: société civile et démocratie en Afrique. He is also the author of a collection of poetry (Fragments d’un crépuscule blessé, 1990) and a travel book (Un Bantou à Djibouti, 1990).///Article N° : 5585


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