At the beginning of his career he has been called “the African Bob Dylan”, and – although he has questioned this comparison from time to time – Gabon music legend Pierre Akendengué has some features in common with his much more famous colleague. Like the American singer and songwriter, in fact, Akendengué can be compared to a minstrel, or, more exactly, to an okambi (the Gabonese version of the more well-known Senegalese griot); both, in addition, have been on stage for some 50 years.
It was 1974 when the Gabonese singer’s first album, Nandipo, was released and two years later Africa Obota (“Africa My Mother”), won an important award, the “Prix de la jeune chanson française” at the annual record industry fair (Midem) in Cannes. Akendengué, however, began his musical education much earlier, even before arriving in France in the mid-Sixties. In Gabon he had already become familiar with the local feasts and the sounds of the forest, which will influence his entire production. According to him, it was mainly because of the differences between his own music and the most popular African genres at that time (the Congolese rumba or the cha cha cha) that he was considered a politically engaged singer. Actually, he was one, but of his own kind. “Artists must take their fair share of responsibility in relation to the audience. – he said in an interview many years later – For too long a time the African artist has been restricted to the role of an entertainer”.
Akendengué, on the other hand, preferred that of a story teller, or a teacher, which also implies keeping alive the traditions and language of his people. That’s why, in addition to French, he has often used his mother tongue, Myéné. “Since I don’t sing to pass the time, I try to convey a number of my ancestral culture’s values, things that involve my native language and are often untranslatable. – he said on another occasion – It’s essential that we preserve the vitality of our languages: a country that loses its language loses its culture and so its identity”. Despite this commitment, he hasn’t been always appreciated in his home country: for many years his music was banned and he could come back in Gabon only in 1985. Here, he founded the Carrefour des arts (“The crossroads of Arts”), which he conceived as a meeting point for younger artists: another attempt to pass his musical wisdom to the youth. The experience was short-lived, due to a lack of cash, which the singer believes was politically motivated. “Omar Bongo Ondimba, who had something against me, decided to cut funding”, he still says, making reference to the autocrat who ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009.
Although his relationship with the head of State and his son and successor Ali improved with time (he even became a ministerial advisor for culture), the singer never relinquished political and social themes. In 1989 he returned recorded an album entitled Espoir à Soweto (“Hope for Soweto”), which called for an immediate end to apartheid in South Africa. Years later, in 2006 he released Gorée, where he remembers the history of slavery (the title is taken from the name of the island off the coast of Senegal which was a symbol of the slave trade). In other cases, the political content of his songs is expressed through the use of symbolic imagery, as is often the case in African oral tradition: a clear example is the song Nos langues de bois (an expression which hints both at a forest and at the often deliberately obscure language of the politicians), in which, from the point of view of nature, he denounces disasters such as pollution and the looting of resources.
Akendengué’s attention to those themes has put him in contact with a new generation of artists which, despite deep musical differences, look at him as an inspiration. In this sense, at least in his country, he can be seen as a pioneer from an ideal point of view, as he has been many other times on the musical scene. Always open to contamination, as happens for instance in Verité d’Afrique with Cape Verdean sounds, Akendengué has, among other things, linked his name to Lambarena, a project he authored in 1994, together with French composer and producer Hughes de Courson. It involved 250 African singers and a group of 50 French classical musicians and mixed Johann Sebastian Bach’s music with sacred chants from the equatorial forest and percussions, creating a vibrant new sound, which undoubtedly gives the Gabonese artist a place in the history of African music.