‘Life is misery’, Ismael alias ‘Izmo le Rapologue’

DSC_2583Cameroonian music is famous in West and Central Africa. The Makossa rhythm makes one dance so well. Rhythm is like beer, and still the hunger for freedom. Dance makes man feel free. Dance and music hide the illusion of freedom. Music and beer are allowed as long as they are not leading to criticism about the regime. But songs can bite! The recent death of artists tells a different story. We meet George in Douala. He is one of the ‘combatants’, member of the opposition party SDF, critical about the regime, critical about the role of France in Cameroon. ‘They keep the regime going’. He follows the critical music scene and relates the last suspicious deaths of artists: La Pirogue de Banga was imprisoned and died later in the USA where he was given asylum. It is told that he died of the maltreatment of his cancer in prison, or that he was poisoned. And the writer Charles Atena Eyene died a few weeks ago, also under suspicious circumstances, and Prof. Pius Ottou, and Pius Njawe…. Being an artist in Cameroon is not safe.

P1210300Izmo was present at the SLAM festival organized by Croquemort in N’Djamena a few weeks ago. He is an experienced artist, a rapper-slammeur. He is a good friend of Croquemort whose music he adores, and whose vocation he shares. In N’Djamena we spent some late night-hours together in the popular disco in the neighbourhood Moursal. He was drinking his beer, while I was dancing. We exchanged some words and sympathized. He is a giant, 1 meter 98 centimeter, with Rasta hair, and a very charismatic personality. His voice is magic. As he explains: ‘my voice is just there’, no schooling. He holds a BA in Law that did not give him access to a job. Since eight years he is into song-writing and music composing; he is now 30 years old.

Rotary members from Congo
We met again in Yaoundé on 8 April and he invited us to Emergence, a bar with life music. A small band was playing all kinds of songs, both African and other, not per se his nor my taste, but technically well done, which is enough for the techno musician he is. Being there also seemed an anomaly. The visitors to the bar were the relatively, sometimes ugly, rich who Ismael considers with a certain pity. Next to us a group of Rotary-Congo members were enjoying their evening. They were in Yaoundé for a Rotary meeting, spending money on poverty, and coming to these chique bars to dance with the Cameroonian girls they invited. These girls seemed rather non-interested in the fat men from Congo. Izmo does not need their money. He considers them part of the problems his songs are about.

Banal, shocking deaths
The next day we visited Izmo in ‘his quarter’, where he and his friends have a studio. It is here that he creates. These days he has been occupied with composing music for the new CD of Croquemort that will be launched mid-May.
Izmo is born out of wedlock. At the age of seven, he had to accept the death of his father. His father left Izmo three half-brothers from the marriage with his legal wife. These three brothers all left for the USA and it has been years since he heard from them. Izmo admires his mother, who tragically passed away a few years ago. During her working life as a nurse she took care of psychiatric patients. After retirement she turned mad herself, which became her death. She (also a giant, 1,84 meter) ran on the street in Douala, foolish and wild, people attacked her and she was killed by the mob. At that moment Izmo was in town for a concert. He found his mother’s body in the street, still warm. A shocking death of the woman he loved most in his life.
His daughter too died a tragic death in 2011: she needed urgent help in the hospital, but the main roads were closed because the president was passing. A sick child was no reason to let them cross. His daughter died in his arms.
Banal deaths are still common in Cameroon, but these deaths should not be forgotten. Izmo’s songs make us ponder.
These events have informed Izmo’s life, and music that talks critically and emotionally about the present day, the everyday tragic that is so common for citizens in the shadows of the world. His explanations about life and the injustices in his neighborhood, country and the world in general, are inspired by theories that embrace anti-colonial ideas, a form of Marxism, and foremost anger. It can be summarized as a sincere vocation of youth without chances.

DSC_2586Movement of musicians
Ismael wants to reach out to the wider Cameroonian, African and why not global public, preferably to the youth; youth that should be the backbone of uprisings and revolution, of protest. But how does Izmo relate to the other youth, who are oriented on consumption, who long to go to Europe or the US, and imitate the soaps on TV? They come on holiday in Cameroon and show off their bling bling. ‘This can be considered another form of protest; despite all uncertainty they have been successful and survive well materially. Showing bling bling is also a protest against their subordinate condition.’ In fact Izmo and his friends and these bling bling youth send out the same message.
‘Masters of the Game’ is a label of music producer Alain Balibi, alias Faucon. The label is like a movement and unites engaged and radical musicians, like Valsero and Izmo le Rapologue. In contrast to Chadian musicians, these artists do not receive funding from the Centre Culturel Francais, instead they receive threat messages from the Government and some of their songs are forbidden on radio or TV.
Izmo is tired of it. He feels that after twelve years of hard work he is still caged by the Cameroonian state. He has been in contact with several Europeans who were all delighted by his music, but never helped him make a career. His friend states over and over again that his talent is ‘dying’ here…

He deserves a much broader audience.

Chanson: CARINE

Carine n’a que 16 ans et déjà meurtrie dans sa chair;
il parait qu’elle souffre d’un cancer ; chaque jour elle se rend
chez le médecin et reçoit des coups de bistouri dans le sein.

Première couplet:
Pour elle ce n’est plus qu’une histoire de secondes;
le temps se compte c’est une course contre la montre;
elle a perdu l’éclat de son tendre visage comme si on retirait un soleil à un paysage;
une tumeur lui vole sa jeunesse, ronge sa chair;
impossible de lui passer une caresse, son corps est une boule de feu comme dit Kery:
il n’y a que la tristesse que tu peux lire dans ses yeux.

Refrain (2x)

Deuxième couplet:
Ce matin, un brin de sourire dès le réveil, elle a le soutien de toute la famille à son chevet, sa situation n’a pas du tout changé;
déjà habituée au piqure de seringue après le déjeuner, Carine s’inquiète de la fortune qu’elle coute à ses parents, car l’instituteur a renvoyé son jeune frère de l’école hier faute d’argent;
tout se dépense entre les médicaments et les poches de sang. Souvent sa maman se cache pour pleurer, entre le docteur et elle il n’y a plus de secret. On se rapproche du jour J, puisque la petite étoile va s’ éteindre comme la flamme d’une bougie.

Refrain (2x)

Troisième couplet:
Aujourd’hui nous sommes une matinée du 15 Juin, et désormais la petite Carine se compte parmi les victimes du destin;
c’est la consternation après constat et avis du médecin. Dans ce monde il n’ y a que les anges qui laissent leurs plumes, tu as été si vaillante jusqu’à la dernière minute, va puisqu’on est juste des traces du temps si fragile et si frêle telles des feuilles balayées par le vent.

Refrain (3x)

Translation of CARINE

Carine is only 16 years old and already dying in her body
She is ailing with cancer, every day she goes to
the doctor and receives ‘shots of scalpel’ in her breast

Verse 1
For her it is not more than a history of a few seconds
Time is short; it is a race against the clock
She lost the brilliance of her tender face, as if the sun was removed from the landscape;
A tumor steals her youthfulness, and eats her flesh
It is impossible to caress her, her body being like a fire ball; as Kery told: there is only sadness that one can read in her eyes

Chorus 2X

Verse 2
This morning starts with a little hope, a little smile since awakening, with the support of the whole family at her bedside; her situation has not changed at all.
Already used to the bites of the vaccination needles, after lunch, Carine is worried about the fortune that her parents spend on her, while the teacher sent her younger brother away from school; Lack of money to pay the fees, because of the high costs for medicine and sacks of blood.
Often her mother hides crying.
Between the doctor and her there is no secret, instead they come closer every day, the little star will extinguish like a candle flame.

Chorus 2X

Verse 3
Today we live in the morning of June 15, when the petite Carine belongs to the victims of destiny;
In the dismay after the conclusion and advice of the doctor, in this world it is only angels who leave their feathers behind. You have been so brave, until the last minute, go…, we are just traces of time, so fragile and brittle like the leaves that dance with the wind.

Chorus 3X


The Guera inspiration

Afbeelding3In Chad the Guera has turned into both an imaginary and a real world. It has been the central region in Chad’s many wars that ravaged the country over the past 50 years. Its main symbol is the beautifully sculptured mountains where Margai (a deity) lived, until the Islamization of the region almost eliminated this cult. Nevertheless, the Guera and its symbols form identity dynamics, a Guera identity that has gone underground, overrun by powerful forces, but it is there and ‘we have to dig to find it’. Which is what artist Salma is doing: trying to understand and re-find a lost identity. She, raised as a Muslim in N’Djamena and Nigeria, has no lived history in the Guera, but she certainly has a history with the Guera. The Guera inspires her artistic work as a painter, photographer and writer and has resulted into her discovery as an artist in N’Djamena. Her photo exhibition at the Institut Français du Tchad after the first travels to her village made the centre fund her, so she can develop her work.

SalmaPutting women central
Already from her early youth Salma was interested in art and expression. She considers the village stories articulated by her mother when she was very young, the foundation of her interests. She combines two themes in her work: the quest for identity and moments of injustice, putting women central. Her last project is about refugee women who fled the Central African Republic where they experienced cruel violence and are now confined to the refugee camps. What were the most important and precious things they grabbed before they had to run away? She relates this theme to her own experience as a refugee on 2 February 2008, which the people refer to as ‘le deux février’, when N’Djamena was invaded by rebels and fierce fighting was disturbing the city. She also had to reflect on what to take, preparing two bags for her flight to discover after arrival in Kousseri that she had taken the wrong bag.

The ‘déguerpisse-ment’ (eviction) is one of the moments of fierce injustice in the recent past of N’Djamena. It is part of the complete reconstruction of N’Djamena as ‘la vitrine de l’Afrique’ (Africa’s showcase), a huge programme of renovation and modernization. The project entails a reorganization of what is considered the chaotic urbanization of the city. N’Djamena’s urban planning was quasi absent after independence. As a consequence, quarters have no plan, roads are absent and people often have no property papers. There was no sign for any control to come soon. But that changed radically a few months after ‘le deux février’, when the rebels were overthrown, ‘calm’ returned to the city and refugees returned. Suddenly crosses were painted on houses, meaning that there were three days left before the bulldozers would come to destroy, to make place for modernization. ‘La renaissance’, a song by the SLAM artist Croquemort I wrote about before, opens with this recent and painful moment in N’Djamena’s history; it is written for the have-nots. But for the ruling ethnic group, it has been a blessing; indeed petrol stations, big hotels, new and well equipped but expensive hospitals, gardens, new roads, a fly-over, etc. are popping up and give a new face to N’Djamena. But where are the street children, and the maids who lived in the dilapidated houses that have been destroyed under the hammer of modernity? Injustice. Nevertheless, modernity is also good, it makes the town fresh; the citizens of N’Djamena are critical and proud at the same time.

DSCF4938Invisible people
The house of Salma’s family was destroyed twice. Salma followed the developments with her camera. Her pictures have influenced the public debate and reached the international press via Amnesty and Radio France Internationale. She contributed to discussions that have led to more justice: at least some re-compensation is given to the people who were disowned, but only to those who exist officially and have the right property papers. The invisible people, rural migrants, street children and maids, have moved to the villages and outskirts of N’Djamena. The stories were multiple. In the end, it turned out a modernization project for the better of the wealthy people, as is history’s usual way.

‘La Renaissance m’a dit’, by Croquemort
La renaissance m’a dit:
“Je vais urbaniser ton arrondissement”.
Elle est revenue sans crier gare le mois suivant
Avec des bulldozers, monstres matalliques détruisant,
Mangeant nos piaules brique par brique rageusement,
Bric-à-brac, gravats, des gens sanglotant.
Et sans vergogne le mois suivant,
Elle y a construit des stations pour y vendre du carburant.
La renaissance m’a dit:
“La sécurité, rien que la sécurité!”
Elle a recruté des flics illettrés

The renaissance tells me:
“I will urbanise your quarter”.
She came back without noise the next month
With bulldozers, metallic monsters destructive,
Eating our houses stone per stone violently,
Bric-a-brac, people crying.
Without consideration, the next month,
She was building fuel stations to sell fuel.
The renaissance tells me:
“Security, nothing but security!”
She has recruited illiterate policemen

Salma hopes to open eyes to animate discussions, but for whom? Will it reach the poorer section of the inhabitants of N’Djamena or only the more sophisticated and ‘cultural’ world of the international scene? Back to the Guera, where better internet connections via smart phones is increasing the radius of the youth. How will the work of Salma get a place in their futures?

Counter Voices

Mirjam de BruijnWe are having a methodology workshop with fellow researchers about our research programme Connecting in Times of Duress. The workshop takes place in Buea, in Cameroon. During the workshop we discussed the art project ‘The Jokers’, which I have also written about in this blog. The concept ‘joker’ was fervently discussed here, because the word has a connotation of not being serious, playing a game, and this is not the significance we want to relate to the persons we are portraying in our project. Therefore we have decided that from now on we will contiune the project under the name ‘Counter Voices’, or in Dutch ‘Tegenstemmen’. More posts to follow soon!

SLAM Scene in N’Djamena

Chad’s nightlife shows a different reality… does it? Is it in the boîte de nuits where the ethnic groups unite? The music imported from elsewhere, full with DJ’s beats, work as a drug for those who dance. Danse is the ‘medicine of the poor’, as an older man and artist said at a conference about ‘la danse in Africa’. He is right: for the youth dancing (and music) is like a medicine. To forget? Or to get energy, to unite and to be? Is it their quest for identity? And what role do the Jokers that we follow on our journey play in this quest?

The search for the Jokers brought us in contact with Croquemort, a famous SLAM artist in N’Djamena, Chad. He is part of the African SLAM scene. We participated in the SLAM festival he organized in N’Djamena: ‘N’djam s’enflamme en slam’. SLAM is a form of expression, musical poetry, poetry on melody. The words sing and flow into a blossoming rhyme that contains the critiques and emotions that are so much part of everyday life. It is a style that comes close to the ordinary person, it phrases experiences that may be horrific and therefore almost comic. There is no dance but there is rhythm, rhythm of words, that become sentences, that become poems composing a story for those who want to listen.

slammer-smallMedicine student
Croquemort’s success is probably mostly due to his open character and ways of connecting to others. He is not a poor young man, rather a middle class medicine student with a destination as a psychiatrist, who loves to make (protest) music. As a baby he already showed his rebellious character, refusing the mother milk from the start. His mother was very sick when he was born in Pala, Mundang country. He shares this start of his life as it explains his ‘being’. That is how ‘it’ started.

Being disciplined
It was not easy for him to become part of the music scene. First there were his parents to convince: his mother accepted it, but his father was ferociously against, until he understood that the music would not stop Croquemort from being a good doctor. He sent his son to a boarding school, to be disciplined. It conversely deepened his consciousness of inequality and the violent realities of social exclusion.

Free expression
The boarding school episode made him more determined to make music that could change and allow him free expression.  First he made modern urban youth music, freestyle and hip hop, until he discovered SLAM. The raw Chadian SLAM poetry became his passion and brought him into contact with Preston, a producer of music, film and clips, who pushed the creation of an album, a few years ago – album making is the basis of the hierarchy in this scene. Subsidized (partly) by the French Institut de la Francophony au Tchad,  Croquemort became the star of N’Djamena and his music the SLAM of the youth. He joined festivals of SLAM Poetry all over Africa and in France. This year his travels are cancelled, he doesn’t like the slow and bad organization of most of the festivals. He will soon travel to Cameroon but that will be for family reasons. Croquemort has a child-son and a Cameroonian wife.

His determination to make himself useful for his people and the quarter he lives in, ‘Chagoua’, is strong. As strong as his partly authoritarian character, that is in such contrast to the timid and modest young man he shows as well.

In Chad SLAM is of recent and people are not yet relating to it that much, but there is a future. SLAM allows the youth to express their frustrations. The former minister of Culture assured us that the Chadian government will let them do (…) as long as they do not become too influential. The Chadian governance structure, a rhizome creeping into every corner of society, will not allow them to become that influential; their open attitude will either be co-opted, or silenced violently.