The Prolific Life & Genius of Francis Bebey

Francis Bebey (July 15, 1929-May 28, 2001) was a Cameroonian-born father, musician, artist, filmmaker, author, musicologist, anthropologist and composer. He was born in the city of Douala, where he attended college, played in a band and studied mathematics. Bebey is considered the father of African music, educating inquisitive minds and ears to African culture, musical songs, rhythms, sounds, history and theory. In the mid 1950s he moved to France to study at Sorbonne University. In Paris, Bebey was influenced musically by Spanish guitar player Andres Segovia, who played there often and specialized in concert flamenco and classical guitar. Bebey also loved jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, stating he bought Armstrong’s records like he was buying cigarettes. Bebey sang, played Pygmy flute, African sanza thumb piano and guitar in his younger years. In 1960, after attending New York University, Bebey settled in Paris where he worked at various radio stations, broadcasting shows and educating listeners on different forms of African music and culture. He was eventually hired by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to document and research African music. Throughout this time Bebey continued to work on his own music. He eventually left UNESCO to focus on composing, playing and blending Latin American, Western, and Asian influences with African music (Kisliuk, 2003).

Bebey was a multifaceted artist who immersed himself in every aspect of musicology. He went through a “colonialist” period fusing Western technology with African rhythms to promulgate any preconceived notions about African rhythms being “primitive.” To facilitate this he sang traditional African songs and ballads in French, English and Douala. He also yodeled (Kisliuk, 2003). In the 1970s he integrated synthesizers, drum machines, harps, flute, electric keyboards, guitar and electrified sanzas, overdubbing all of the instruments on his albums Fleur Tropicale, La Condition Masculine, Heavy Ghetto, Sanza Nocturne and Un Petit Ivoirien and other releases on his label Ozileka. Ozileka studio was a spare room built onto his apartment where he recorded and released over 20 albums between 1975 and 1997, not counting 12 or more on other labels.

Bebey’s artistic manifesto was spreading information about African music. Throughout his life he was focused on regenerating African art. From an interview with Bebey by Chris May in 1982, Bebey wrote, “Many of the foreign influences that have penetrated Africa will be incorporated into a new form of black African art. This form of initiation may be deplored by those with deep-seated conservative or racist tendencies, but far from resulting in a bastardised and damaging modernism, we believe this mutation will breathe new life into African art and will demonstrate the triumph of humanism and universality over esoteric sterility….It is imperative that the future of African music be based on the idea of development and not merely upon preservation.” Focusing on preservation would be tokenizing African music much like exhibiting pieces in a museum, concluded Bebey (The Vinyl Factory, 2018). The “world music” movement hounded Bebey for much of his career. He challenged colonialist views about African musics’ “authenticity” perpetrated upon African music from audiences who are Western. Many Western audiences questioned “foreign” influences in African music, implying racist beliefs that African music cannot modernize without changing qualities. This inspired President Sekou Toure in independent Guinea, and other post-colonial African countries later, to support traditional African arts while also embracing avant garde creativity and experimentation (May, 2018). Bebey coined a term “amaya” in English, which stood for “African modern and yet authentic” as an umbrella descriptor to explain his work (Winders, 2006).

As an example of Bebey’s modernization of African music, Bebey yodeled in Pygmy vocal style, refashioning Western style song structure. From his book, African Music: A People’s Art, Bebey explains how the human voice is the most widely used instrument by Africans. Voice is used by Africans in differing nuances, such as manipulating appendages to produce modulating timbres similar to yodelling. Like a modulator, voices can be reconstituted by pinching the nose, fluctuating the tongue, plugging the ears, or singing through a repository. Bebey asserted that the West’s definition of a “beautiful singing voice” is a subjective notion that applies to the standards of melodic pitch, perfection and purity in tone, all based on Western criteria. A “beautiful” African voice, according to these criteria, could be a tonal accident in traditional African music. Music in Africa is used every day to delegate life, nature, beliefs and rituals where the context of “beauty” is secondary in maintaining a constant purpose. African life requires musical adaptation, preserving a collective aspect where no one is ruled out as being a “bad singer.” Anyone who has the urge to sing or make their voice heard have the liberty to do so, and singing is not a grandiose or beautiful affair. Africans use musical affirmations to fill conversations when retelling indiscreet affairs with a husky voice, or using a mocking tone to produce a satirical account of a circumstance. It gives people a rite to preach, pray, validate, settle affairs, and execute their actions in pronounced verbalizations. Voice is a common language that all African ethnic groups can understand to reframe life banality with philosophic wisdom (Bebey, 1969).

Bebey’s song “Divorce Pygmee” exemplifies his feelings about African voice as an instrument. Translating the song in English from French, Bebey is singing about a failed Pygmy marriage; or more specifically, a wife’s treatment from the husband’s standpoint, where she is asking for a divorce. He sings, she does not tell him nice things anymore, after everything he has done for her to change her from a thin “small leaf” into a beautiful “fat” woman (being a thin woman is considered less attractive by African standards). Bebey yodels after each song segment which adds a satirical inflection on the catastrophic circumstance of divorce. In addition to entertaining, he is also educating listeners about the process of marriage in African communities, where giving gifts such as elephant tusks to the bride’s parents is ceremonial in Pygmy culture, much like a dowry, mirroring marriage ceremonies in Asian cultures.

Bebey was an experimental African music visionary, ranking with legends such as Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Franco, William Onyeabor, and Odion Iruoje. Like Bebey, Iruoje believes that Africans should be proud of their musical innovations and aimed to integrate these sounds into his production and arrangement for EMI Nigeria throughout the 70s and 80s. He is currently reissuing some of these records with deejay Temitope Kogbe on their reissue label, Odion Livingstone. Given the global north’s colonialist history of unauthorized bootlegging of African records, it is important to see a Lagos-based label taking ownership of what is theirs.

Photo courtesy of Pierre Rene Worms

Bebey was prolific, releasing 25 albums, authoring 9 books, radio broadcasting, lecturing about musicology and African culture, plus performing his music globally. His albums have been compiled by numerous labels, highlighting different periods of his career. John Williams composed a tribute piece honoring Bebey, named “Hello Francis.” The piece is based on the Makossa dance rhythm from Cameroon documented and performed by Bebey and other African musicians. Arcade Fire also has paid tribute to him through their song, “Everything Now” which includes the flute melody from Bebey’s “The Coffee Cola Song” played by his son, Patrick. Bebey passed away on May 28, 2001 and is survived by his wife, a daughter, and two sons: Toups (saxophonist) and Patrick (keyboardist) Bebey who continue his father’s legacy of “amaya.”


Bebey, F. (1969) African Music: A People’s Art.

Kisliuk, M. (2003). The Pygmy: Hunter, Gatherer, Survivor, and Yodeler: The yodeling and hocketing of Pygmy singing has served as an icon of social and musical utopia. In Platenga, B., Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, chapter 6 (pp. 137-149). Routledge, New York, NY.

May, C. Cameroonian trailblazer Francis Bebey

Winders, J. (2007). Paris Africain: Rhythms of the African Diaspora. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY.

Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour)