The Cameroon Music Industry – A brief history (1700s – 2022)

Pre Colonisation, “Cameroonian” music was mainly done by groups or individuals playing naturally loud acoustic instruments and singing or chanting. The songs will generally be topical and antiphonal in nature, and the language used was unique to each tribe, as were the sounds, and styles, despite certain commonalities. This meant the audience was part of the show, but also that it was difficult for the show to move across tribal brothers due to language differences, as such the ecosystems were built around tribes and traditional institutions. Music was part of farming, spiritual rituals, social gatherings, etc. The making of musical instruments would arguably have been one of the most profitable aspects of the industry and for most musicians. In the case of the Nso people, the concept of Intellectual property was greatly shared, for example, there are certain musical shows (dances & Jujus) that could only be performed by certain families or groups of families, and at some point if the king loved a musical show, he will order for it to become the palace show and no other family could perform this show in public again. Nonetheless, a lot was in the public domain especially due to the lack of written culture as a means of documentation and communication. Whenever a dance was invited for an event, the inviting party would pay for the gig, mostly with palm wine and chicken. Many people, however, were in hunters or farmers or women groups, which themselves used to have their own musical shows, and the musical show will visit and perform for any member when the occasion arose, often for no compensation but food and drinks.  

The advent of colonization especially the creation of “modern African countries” certainly brought about certain consequences such as technology, western cultural influences, but also the ability for a wider number of tribes, to combine into a single territory ruled by one administration, with a general “second language” that could be understood across the tribes, meant local tribal music could move to new tribes more direly.

The first recorded music in Cameroon came in the 1930s and the first  Radio broadcasting began in Cameroon in 1941, when the French government opened the first radio station in Douala called “Radio Douala ”. It is also known as “A Child of War”. Other radio stations (state-owned) got created in Yaounde, Garoua, etc, and the network for radio stations was based on the national administration division. These radio stations did not only serve to broadcast the music but were the first who could afford recording equipment, which made them the creative hubs and production centers from which the modern Cameroon music industry is built, this also became true of the government-run national television (1985) and its impact on music video production and distribution.

Private individuals, artists, and companies will now get into the recording business, and a good number who were not part of the state ecosystem will often record and duplicate vinyl and cassettes in Europe or Nigeria a habit which lasted till the end of the CD era.

Success stories from this generation will be Ekambi Brilliant, Nico Mbarga, Lapiro de Mbanga, Les Tetes Brullees, John Minag, Anne Marrie Nzie, Les Zangalewa, last generation of such artists include Sam Fan Thomas, petit pays, Sergio Polo, Bebe Manga. Record labels included; Haisam Records, JPS, 

In the 80s and 90s, western popular music through radio, and cassette gained a significant market share within Cameroon, which influenced a lot of Cameroonian content of that generation, as well as led Cameroonian music to influence some e.g Michael Jackson’s sampling of Manu Dibango, or James Brown’s sampling of Tala Andre. 

For a brief while between the late 90s and early 2000s, the youth had picked up the buzzing hip-hop influence from America, and the local traditional popular genres became a thing of the old generation. How it quickly began to integrate local languages and cultures with the desire to reach the older generation which could afford to pay for the music. Bands such as Bantou Possi, and Zomloa are examples.

However it was not until  around 2005, when the urban music scene across Africa adopted an afrocentric yet global touch that gained national and pan african success became a thing. The Same was happening across africa especially in Nigeria with acts like Dbanj, P-Square, 2Face Idibia, etc who’s music ended up influencing the way young musicians across africa wrote and delivered music but also the way the world at large consumed african music, not as something for museums and showcases, but as music that was equal to any other and could be enjoyed by all and any. In Cameroon early acts of this generation include X-Malaya, Magasco, Duc Z, etc and the current generation like Mr Leo, Jovi Le Monstre, Daphne Njie, Locko, Salatiel etc,

In 2014, Cameroon rapper Stanley Enow became the first act from this Cameroon Afropop (mboa) scene to win an MTV base award, this followed by other acts winning other international awards and entering the francophone africa market, especially due to creation of Trace Africa, and increase in internet penetration and access to mobile technologies. The music scene also greatly profited from high quality HD video producers like NS Pictures and Nkeng Stephens which made national content more attractive to international audiences.

This period saw the creation of record labels like AlphaBetter Records, Stephen’s Music, Newbell Music, BigDreams Ent, Bahood Records, WarMachine etc. which helped to groom the talents, and served as an ecosystem for collaboration. Another local record label, this time with its promoter coming from the diaspora Empire Company came as a disruptor with promise to export the vibrant national scene into the global marketplace. Besides producing artists for the national market, organising mega concerts in the nation’s big cities, and taking top acts like X Malaya to headline in major venues like Olympa in France, Empire finally brought with it the first major label to set up in Cameroonian soil, Universal Music. Acts like Tenor, and Locko ended up buying this hope of getting an opening to the global marketplace for Cameroon music through collaboration with Major Labels. Forward 2022, top acts from Cameroon like Locko, and Mimie dropped off from the label, (without the big international breakthrough that Cameroonians had hopped or at least nothing beyond what their independent peers could not do without a label) the promoter Pit Bacardi is faced with so much bad press and Universal Music Cameroon declared bankruptcy and shut down its offices in Cameroon. Record labels like AlphaBetter, Big Dreams, and WarMachine, have lost the place they used to hold, and artists are back in some sort of not knowing what the future holds.

This has not stopped independent artists from creating and having successes, like Phill Bill, Witty Minstrel, Krys M, etc, But the big challenge remains, how do they ensure their careers are sustainable, and how can they sell beyond their current boundaries knowing the stiff competition and overall the lack of some establishment, or industry structure or at least as 80% of the industry claims.

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