Messes au Cameroun/Masses of Cameroon

    -- Recording by Playasound/Auvidis, 1990, 12-page booklet by Gerard Krémer.

Marvelous, thrilling, ecstatically beautiful … unhelpful, incomplete, misleading. The first terms can be applied to the music, the second set to the accompanying booklet.

This hour-long CD provides excerpts of two Masses from the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Douala, on the coast of Cameroon. The music of the first Mass, of the Bakoko people, reminds me of the glorious Ewondo Masses that I enjoyed so much in the Yaoundé area sixteen years ago. These songs have a near-perfect mix of sung vocals and percussion, though the presiding priest was not given a microphone and can barely be heard.

In the Mass of the Douala people, you can barely hear the intricate polyrhythms of slit drums and large bell, though the vocals are well-recorded. Both Masses were recorded during actual services and contain sounds of coughing and so forth. Some judicious digital editing could have removed such extraneous noises and raised the sound level of the instrumentation; the former does not bother me near as much as lack of the latter. I wrote a whole book on a Roman Catholic leader’s use of a slit drum in a Cameroonian church context, so I am understandably annoyed when its sound is pushed down much too low due to poor recording and/or mixing.

Though both Masses sound quite “African” in general, (as far as fitting into the broad genre of Roman Catholic composed church music in Cameroon), they contain some fine a cappella pieces which show a Western influence. The Agnus Dei of the Douala Mass in particular would not be out of place in a European cathedral several hundred years ago. Having said that, it’s a gorgeous song, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to the whole CD.

The booklet, ah, that’s another story. The notes are about 1 ¼ pages long in French and slightly shorter in English. The longest section is about the history of Cameroon, probably copied from a book. Then we get two paragraphs supposedly about the ethnic groups whose music we hear, though it turns out that only two sentences are precisely relevant and one of them is, “The Bakokos got down the Sanaga River before to stop in the mouth of the Wouri River.” I suppose they’re still there, treading water and singing away.

Under the section titled “The Instruments,” we are told that “It is not necessary to underline the important part taken by the percussion instruments in African music.” And indeed the researcher did not find it important to tell us anything except – hold on to your hats for the surprise – that the “chants” are not accompanied by a “grand organ” but by “many drums, small round bells, rattles, and a double metal bell.”

No names or descriptions or diagrams of the instruments are given. I clearly hear the two-tone hollow-log slit drums but they are not mentioned. On the other hand, the cover photo (the only photo) shows balafons which I definitely do not hear. Either they were omitted entirely from the mix, or the photo does not correspond to the music on the recording. “Oh well, it’s all African church music.”

The most helpful part of the booklet are the song titles in French, English, and the local languages, correlated to sections of the Mass structure. This information was written by a Cameroonian priest. Why do I get the feeling that the French “researcher” did nothing of value except turn on the recorder? The songs are superb; how I wish he had learned who composed them (and where they were trained in music), when they were composed, the initial and long-term reactions of local people inside and out the church, how long it took people to learn the parts, information on the instruments, and so forth. As it stands, the CD is worth getting for great aural enjoyment; just forget about being educated.

    -- reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.2 of

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