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From Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver,” to EC Arinze’s “Saturday Night,” to Rex Lawson’s “Yellow Sisi,” highlife was a music of young men in big towns, marveling at cars, dancing at nightclubs, chasing single women.
There was something, a new confidence, beyond the lyrics too.
Over the last few months, I have tried to piece together a more textured story: traveling to Mbarga’s hometown to talk to his childhood friend, his wife and his mistress; tracking down his former band members from Cameroon to France to the US; prodding the memory of his octogenarian producer; and reading rare transcripts of his interviews.
Twenty years after his death, this is the obituary that never was.
With its staccato guitar, spontaneous spoken asides and high-pitched harmonies, it had the whole continent dancing the Mbarga, always dedicated, taught himself the conga, the drums, the bass and, most importantly, the finger-picking style of Congolese electric guitar.But Nico wanted to make a sound more like the western instruments of highlife, so he built his own xylophone from dried-out plantain skins and scooped bark.“It was completely something that he innovated,” Ojong recalls.” “Oh that is his concubine,” she responded matter-of-factly, “I will take you to her.” My worries were eased by their laughing and hugging as they greeted each other.Then a smiling Lucy recounted the moment 50 years ago that she met Nico Mbarga: a charming, handsome, if slightly short and dirt-poor 17-year-old. Even my mother did no gree, she said, ‘He’s a small boy, he don’t have money,’ but I said, ‘No, that boy is my choice.’” Indeed, despite the objections of her parents, and their own struggles to buy even “a money for pot” to boil water, she would soon have the first of her two children with Mbarga.