It’s unusual to hear a guitarist admit to having soaked his guitar in the bathtub to mellow the tone out. But Cameroonian singer-songwriter Henri Dikongué is unusual in many ways. Whizzing through on a quick advance P.R. trip to encourage the buzz around his new CD, C’est la vie (Tinder Records, 619 Martin Ave. Unit 1, Rohnert Park, CA 94928; 707-588-9164), Dikongué stopped in to our office long enough to talk about bringing his singular acoustic approach to America for the first time.
To most Americans, West African music means endless dance grooves like makossa, percolating electric guitars, and big band arrangements. Mention Cameroon and most Americans look blank. But there’s more to Cameroonian music than the frenetic Afro-Punk of Les Têtes Brulées. Rather than making us dance, Dikongué wants us to lean into his music and really listen to the words. And he knew at age five that the acoustic guitar would be his vehicle of musical expression.
“I prefer its simplicity,” he explained. “Early on I had a choice of piano or drums or guitar and guitar was handier. As I learned to play I found the guitar let me express something personal.”
His style of playing was very unusual in Cameroon, but less so in Paris, where he ended up as a teenager and now makes his home. He studied classical and flamenco techniques, and began incorporating styles as varied as Cuban son, Brazilian bossa nova, and Caribbean jazz. “Everybody listens to salsa and Latin music in Africa,” he smiled, “but few of them use it in their own music.”
Still, Dikongué’s enthusiasm for making his own “petite salade” out of traditional African and other genres wasn’t always easy for his audiences to accept.
“My first CD (Wa, currently unavailable in the U.S.) wasn’t so well-received in Cameroon. It took maybe six months for people to get used to what I was doing. People accused me of not following the path of the true Cameroonian.” Part of it, he explained, was his western-shaped songs. “In Africa you can’t begin to say what you want to say in only three minutes.”
And what Dikongué has to say involves politics and injustice as much as it does complex affairs of the heart. “In the first album, the lyrics are pretty violent. It took me four years to get out everything I had to say about war, about hate, about racism. It’s all in that album. And because of all that intensity, it was a very hard album to record. On C’est la vie, I’d already said my piece, so I felt free to just keep working the message.”
Produced in Paris, C’est la vie is refreshingly spare and airy, giving plenty of space to Dikongué’s appealing, intimate vocals and his delicate, yet precise, guitar work. “I mix up a variety of styles in my playing. Traditional, classical, a little bit of flamenco, all with my personal technique—playing with two fingers, traditional or not. Playing classical, you’re supposed to polish your nails, Me, I bite mine. That’s part of my sound.”
Another part of his sound is his guitar. He favors the lightly-built classical or flamenco-style acoustics, demonstrating the guitar he used in recording the new CD. “I have two Ovations at home, but I’m traveling with this Canadian Patrie. When I first got it, the wood was too raw, too savage, so I soaked it in the bathtub for a while, and now it behaves. I set it up with an internal pickup under the saddle, because without it I couldn’t be heard over my band. On this trip I’m hoping to find some more guitars that will respond like this one to my style of playing.”
C’est la vie ranked in the French world music Top Ten for three months earlier this year. It was released here in March. Dikongué hopes the buzz will snowball until he can schedule his debut American tour, perhaps later this year. Asked if he thought singing in French or African languages might be a problem for American audiences, he shrugged. “If I sing in English I don’t do it well. If I do something I like to do it well. Plus, I don’t want to necessarily do what people like all the time. I’d rather change their expectations, get their attention.” Well, a quiet hour with C’est la vie is certain to do just that.