Composer for Every Country: Gabon

I want to start today with a note about history. Finding any kind of pre-colonial history of sub-Saharan African is… usually difficult. It would be false to say there is no writing at all before the colonial era. Several regions developed their own scripts: Berber languages are written in Tifinagh, developed in about 300BCE; Ge’ez developed in the 8-9th centuries BCE and is used by languages in the Horn of Africa. There are a variety of other native scripts and pseudo-syllabaries, and Arabic script was spread by Islam into the Sahel during Medieval Africa, often changed and adapted to suit local languages.

Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that most of the cultures in Africa were illiterate. That means that the means by which these cultures understood themselves is through different kinds of oral histories and, well… lets say there’s a bias against such things as being considered “history.” The whats and wherefores of such are way beyond the scope of a little blog like this, but I bring it up because, for a multitude of reasons, there is even less information about pre-colonial Gabon than other Sub-Saharan countries I’ve written about so far. I suspect this lack of credence given to oral history, as well as certain ethical problems that arise when recording the stories of an illiterate culture in writing, is behind this general lack of information.

What can be said is this: the Babongo were the first to settle the area, although my searches have not turned up a date range for their appearance. They were slowly pushed out and marginalized by the Bantu migrations, from 3000BC-500AD and again from the 11th-17th centuries AD. Culturally, the Babongo are known for their animist religion Bwiti, in which the forest is shared by a spirit, Macoi, which is ambivalent to the existence of humans and must be appeased at every turn. Among their rituals is the use of Iboga, a plant with powerful hallucinogenic and dissociative properties when eaten. The list of adverse side-effects is rather long, but the same could be said of many prescription drugs approved by the FDA.

The probable majority Bantu culture of the area is the Fang. We encountered them before, but one thing that I overlooked is the use of masks for various purposes. One example is the ngil mask, used by the Ngil Association in the 19th-century. They acted as mediators and sorcerers, protecting people from poisons or punishing wrong-doers. In addition, Bwiti has merged in some ways with Christianity, becoming a more syncretic religion. Along with Christianity and Islam, Bwiti is one of the official religions of Gabon.

As far as music, again I am presented with a distinct lack of information. There’s not much music industry to speak of, although radio stations like Africa no.1 and Studio Mademba play a big role in disseminating music across the country. 

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Today’s composer is Pierre Akendengué (b.1943). Currently serving as cultural advisor for Gabon, he started with studies in psychology at the University of Caen in France. Encouraged by French musician/actor Mireille Hartuch, he turned to music and released his first album, Nandipo, in 1973. The songs are in both French and Nkomi. Later in life, he turned to the study of religious music, but Catholic (plainchant) and religions of the Nkomi. He currently has released 21 albums. The linked track, Oyangayanga, is from his 2009 album, Vérité d'Afrique.