CAMEROON: Get On Board - Emmanuel Pi Djob
Updated: Jan 13
The soul man shows off his talent as he crosses the divide of the Anglo-Francophone conflict in his native Cameroon
Many musicians from all around the world decide to sing in English. There are a variety of reasons for doing so, principal among which is to be able to reach a far wider audience, and a global audience at that. This makes sense especially if you are from a country where the local language is not spoken much outside that country, an example of that from the albums we have already reviewed is Look Sharp! By Roxette, or maybe you’ve conquered your native-language market, like Shakira, and want to look to pastures new. There is another reason why. Perhaps you’re a kid from outside the USA or the UK, and all the artists and music you love comes from there, and like The Poets of Rhythm, our Bavarian funk band, you want to emulate that style as much as you can, which would include singing in English. On the face of it, this week’s album of the week, Get on Board by Emmanuel Pi Djob, could be either one of these reasons. He is a francophone Cameroonian, who achieved some success in France as a contestant on their version of The Voice, and thus could be attempting to strike out into English-speaking markets, as well trying to sound most like his English-speaking influences, namely soul and R&B musicians. However, whatever his intentions were, singing in English as a French-speaking expat from Cameroon has a far greater significance in his homeland..
“Art is political, whether the artist intends it or not, after all.”
Cameroon is a mostly francophone nation, but due to British and French colonial meddling, there is a sizeable anglophone minority within the country too. This linguistic difference dates back to the 1961 Foumban Conference, which united British and French controlled Cameroonian provinces, without much (or indeed any) regard of how the two parts of the country would manage to unite, and what was known as the Anglophone problem became identified, where English-speaking Cameroons were systematically denied access to vital services, including education, in their native tongue. Over the years, official denial of the issue of discrimination by the French-speaking government led to further discontent, to the point where it has boiled over into conflict, with the Anglophone Ambazonian rebels starting an insurgency against the Cameroonian government in 2017, which has become a full-on civil war, with around 3,000 deaths, 679,000 people internally displaced from their homes, and just under 60,000 Cameroonian have fled to Nigeria to escape the fighting. What does any of this have to do with this rather excellent neo-soul album? Well, and perhaps I am reaching here, but it would be equally ludicrous to think that Djob would be completely unaware of the way that singing in English would be perceived in Cameroon. Though this had no bearing on my enjoyment of the album – I wasn’t even aware of the Anglophone Crisis until afterwards when discussing it with Danny, and the album was released in 2015, when the problem had not yet spilled over into armed struggle – but I did find it an interesting aspect to his choice to sing mostly in English, that despite his intentions, will have been perceived as such in his native country. Art is political, whether the artist intends it or not, after all.
The album itself is tremendously fun, and that’s the main take-away from the whole piece for me. The opening track, Gimme Some More, starts with some bluesy guitarwork that is vaguely reminiscent of a musician like BB King, yet Djob takes it into a funkier, soul-inflected direction. Djob’s voice is somewhere between the raspy shrieks of a James Brown type and an earthy, full-blooded Tom Jones, which gives it a unique quality, and one that adapts to the songs at hand. Gospel music is a clear influence on Djob, as is Ray Charles, with one of the songs on the album being a cover of Georgia on my Mind, made famous by Charles, yet my favourite of the gospel tracks is Sons of Lilith, which has a memorable chorus and tune that matches up nicely with Djob’s soulful voice. That’s not to say his cover is bad; on the contrary, Djob is smart enough not to compete with Charles on the piano stakes (I would wager nobody aside from perhaps Stevie Wonder and Elton John could rival Charles on technical ability on the keyboards) and instead Djob’s take on the sing is mostly played on the acoustic guitar, which gave it a little something to make it stand out. Georgia on my Mind is oft covered, but this stripped back style, though unusual, worked. His skill as both an up-tempo soul man and a crooning balladeer give the album the variety it needs to be interesting on a musical level, and he does also sing in French on three tracks. While this doesn’t inherently mean the album is better because of it, I did think it was a nice inclusion, as it shows Djob is keen to not only sing soul music in the style of American performers, but also that he wants to mould it in his own image by speaking in his native tongue. In this respect he is like France’s King of Neo-Soul, Ben L’Oncle Soul, who similarly takes the classic soul sound and sings in both English and French in a selection of original material and covers. What makes Djob superior (for me at least) is that Djob is more keen to fuse different genres together, rather than just recreate the sound of Motown classics.
Overall, while I can’t say this is necessarily the most meaningful of albums, it is certainly an absolutely great time, with not a single bad song for my money, and many fantastic ones. Djob is clearly a talented singer and musician, and this album is a showcase for those talents. His voice is memorable and rough, like whisky over gravel, and his ear for a catchy tune is up there with some of the best we’ve had over the course of this process so far. It’s an album that makes me interested to know what he will do next after his success in France since his 2013 appearance on The Voice and the release of this album two years later. In addition, the album also serves as an unusual reminder of the way politics can influence art even in ways that may not be the intention of the creator.