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A Singer Driven by the Rhythm

Sally Nyolo popularizes an infectious, pulsing Cameroonian vocal style.

September 10, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

New divas seem to be arriving in the burgeoning arena of world music almost as frequently as new young stars in Hollywood films. Cameroonian singer Sally Nyolo, who appears at LunaPark in West Hollywood on Saturday, is one of the latest, and one of the best.

But Nyolo is no inexperienced newcomer.

In the last year and a half, she has emerged from the collective music environment of Zap Mama to become a strikingly individual artist. Her latest album, "Multiculti" (Tinder Records), is a delightful collection of acoustic music surging with the body-bending bikutsi rhythms of Cameroon, topped by Nyolo's crisp, melodic vocal harmonies.

An important cog in the a cappella sounds of Zap Mama from 1993 to 1995, Nyolo struck out on her own after Marie Daulne, the group's founder, elected to move into a more pop-oriented format in December 1995.

Nyolo had joined Zap Mama with some reluctance, in part because she knew that her role would largely be that of musical associate, rather than creative director. So when Daulne changed the group's format, Nyolo was happy to return to the establishment of her own musical identity.

"It's important," she says, "for me to give the real sound of the music, because the rhythm and the sound I want people to discover is usually carried in traditional Cameroonian music by the vocals rather than other instrumentation. In my latest record, 'Multiculti,' I still tried to do everything in an acoustic way. Because, to me, this is the way it's supposed to be, and if I change everything, the language of bikutsi won't be as clear. And this is the language I want to keep alive."

Bikutsi has a lengthy history in Cameroon. Like many African music forms, it has served a variety of purposes, first as a kind of war rhythm, later as a vehicle used by women for the sly expression of fantasies and taboos, often related to sexual notions. If its more recent expression has gained familiar pop characteristics, bikutsi's words still are filled with multilayered ideas, and its rhythms continue to provoke movements of the back and the hips that are filled with erotic innuendo.

Nyolo, who is in her early 30s, left her home village of Eyen-Meyong in Southern Cameroon to move to Paris when she was 13. But she never lost touch with the sounds and the rhythms she heard in her childhood.

"Singing a cappella was my first experience in music. It's the way I remember singing with my aunties, with my mother, with my cousins in Cameroon. And to go back to the music I heard in the forests of Cameroon, to sing the guitar parts or the gourd rhythms with my voice, has been really important to me, both with Zap Mama and with my own groups."

She will appear at LunaPark with her six-piece ensemble.

"We have three singers," she says, "one guitar, one bass and a special set of drums that can play both regular rhythms and traditional percussion at the same time."

Her infectious enthusiasm for her music, her desire to reach out to a wide audience with her vocal ministrations, are clearly expressed in the global blend of languages in "Multiculti." But if Nyolo becomes the global diva her talents seem to warrant, it will happen not because of her multi-lingualism, but because her message reaches beyond the limitations of verbal expression.

"For me," she says, "music does not only take place on a recording. Music needs to be sung, shared with real people. Because music is life."

BE THERE

Sally Nyolo appears Saturday at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. 9:30 p.m. $15. (310) 652-0611.

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