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Francis Bebey; Influential Composer of Contemporary African Music

June 25, 2001|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francis Bebey, one of the pioneers of contemporary African music who had an influential career as a musician, composer and writer, has died. He was 72.

Bebey died at his home in Paris on May 28 of a heart attack.

Born in a small village on the outskirts of Douala, a seaport in the West African nation of Cameroon, Bebey enjoyed playing a traditional Pygmy flute as a child. He later learned the African thumb piano and guitar.

Bebey was educated in Cameroon, France and the United States, and his guitar playing was influenced by the work of the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia.

He said Segovia affected his sense of possibilities in the guitar and forced him to take his playing more seriously.

"I found out what the instrument that had interested me so much as a boy was capable of," he said.

Unlike his contemporaries in African music, Bebey also said he was greatly influenced by American jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. "The first time I heard Louis Armstong, I went crazy," Bebey said in a 1979 interview. "I bought his records like smokers buy cigarettes."

Bebey's music blended original African rhythms with those of Latin America, Europe and Asia. To do this, however, he had to overcome the prejudice against his native music that was instilled in him as a child.

"During the colonial period, I was schooled to ignore and even to detest traditional African styles [of music], which at that time were called 'primitive rhythms' and which, I was assured, had nothing to do with 'real music,' " Bebey told a reporter years ago.

"The artistic challenge is to use the tools of Western progress and [communicate] messages of the African heritage."

Bebey made more than 25 recordings and was a composer as well. In 1994, he received a commission from the Kronos Quartet and composed "Kasilane" for classical string quartet and Pygmy flute. The work premiered in Paris the same year.

Bebey also set the works of several African poets to music, including Leopold Sedar Senghor, the former president of Senegal. He performed at the International Guitar Festival in France, the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts and at various WOMAD festivals in Europe.

Well thought of among fellow musicians, Bebey was not a highly commercial performer. He earned his living for much of his life by working with UNESCO's information services division in Paris, where he attained the rank of head of the music department before retiring in 1974 to pursue his writing career.

He published several books, including novels, short stories and poems. His novel "Agatha Moudio's Son" won the Grand Prix Litteraire de L'Afrique Noire in Paris in 1968. A later novel, "Rain Child," received the Prix Saint Exupery in 1994.

In addition, Bebey wrote a well-received study of his native continent's music, "African Music--a People's Art," and an influential essay on broadcasting in black Africa.

He is survived by his sons, Patrick and Toups, both accomplished musicians who often played with their father; and a daughter, Kiddy.

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