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Sally Nyolo and the Original Bands of Yaoundé - Studio Cameroon

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Artist: Sally Nyolo and the Original Bands of Yaoundé

Album: Studio Cameroon

Label: Riverboat

Review date: Feb. 14, 2007

The skittering, ebullient, push-and-pull bikoutsi rhythm dominant in Cameroon’s interior city of Yaoundé is at the heart of this project by ex-Zap Mama singer Sally Nyolo. Nyolo has long been musically adventurous in her endeavors as a composer and performer, and on this collection she returns to her childhood roots in Cameroon, assembling, recording and collaborating with a kaleidoscopic array of Yaounde roots and pop musicians. Her modus operandi for the project seems to have been quite simple: She set up a studio and began working with local bands, involving herself integrally with the songwriting, arranging and production. The results are energetic and passionate, and it’s clear that Nyolo has managed to take part in and celebrate these sounds in a refreshingly effortless and natural way.

Nyolo is best known as a singer, so it makes some sense that the vocals, whether solo or ensemble, are consistently up-front in the mix here. The opening track, by Nyolo with Gueyanka, sets that agenda with high-pitched throat-whistling and Cameroonian scat singing; The warm growl of the vocal on Edmund Fils Nkoa Band’s narrative “Esclaves” is gently compelling; the Bidjoi Sisters’ conversational approach on “Chantal’ feels almost shockingly intimate and unguarded.

Nyolo herself takes the lead on “Bikoutsi,” which might well serve as a manifesto of the style, building its energy on sliding, pulsing electric bass, interlocking electric guitars and balafons, and chattering percussion. A reggae-ish take on the traditional bikoutsi feel drives the aforementioned “Chantal," where the insistent groove and sweet-tart blend of voices eventually moves outdoors and into an audio verite assemblage of street sounds.

Adding to the overall adventure are subtle tastes of other styles and approaches. Disco thump and ringing electric guitars reminiscent of the early '80s era of Zaire-Congo soukous lock in on Americain’s “Salaire”; syncopated patterns on acoustic guitar are at the center of the rich vocal call-and-response trance on “Obila Eba’ by Mr. Eddy. And as relaxed and comfortable as these recording sessions might sound, they are far from lo-fi, evincing a natural sound-staging and depth of field that adds dimension and atmosphere, underscoring the contextual unity surrounding so much musical variety.

Like most pop, Cameroonian music tends toward constant change - and those changes are not always well-documented or disseminated. It seems clear that with Studio Cameroon, however, Sally Nyolo has helped to create a thrilling musical snapshot of a very specific time and place. I’m guessing that time will reveal that she has also helped to produce an African music classic.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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