Cameroon born and raised saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Ribouem launched his musical career in the 80s, playing in nightclubs in the city of Douala, where he also worked as a sound engineer. He later performed concerts all around his home country and for more than two years shared the stage of the “Ebony Dream” with renowned jazz bassist Richard Bona. In the early 90s, Ribouem moved to Benin, West Africa, where he became involved in the local music scene and played with, among others, Lionel Loueké, who later worked with Herbie Hancock. Later, a Lebanese musician named Youssef Fares took him on a tour of neighboring countries, where Ribouem learned more about Arabian music, rhythms and harmonies; he subsequently moved to Lomé, the capital of the Togolese Republic (Togo), where he still lives.
Upon moving there, Ribouem befriended a popular Togolese singer named Julie Akofa Akoussa and the two performed together and planned to record songs; he even took over the musical arrangements of her band. Julie passed away in 2007 in Paris before any significant recording could be done, although a few analogic recordings were left behind. In the meantime, “Ribs” met an Australian producer, Kate Jenkins, who convinced him to record his own project. He had done a few recordings earlier but the work on them was partial, improvised and fragmented—not ready for professional presentation. Bridge, the album he recorded in 2001 in Ghana, represents a giant step in his professional career; its vibe was a synthesis of jazz and African traditional influences. While only 2,000 physical units were pressed and there was no digital distribution, Bridge received a strong buzz in West Africa and earned him an invitation to “Jazz a Ouaga”, Burkina’s jazz festival, in 2002.
In 2008, Ribouem became friends with Valery Renault, who came to Lomé to teach French. Their friendship blossomed into a creative musical relationship and early in 2011 they began working on a project that became Ribouem’s Tribute to Julie Akofa Akoussa, re-recording the older material digitally and mastering it. Renault has since convinced Ribouem that he had to record another album of his own, which is currently in production. Just before Renault moved back to New York (the two work back and forth with digital files), “Ribs” set up a new band with local musicians. The “New Ribs Jazz Band” played three venues in June 2011: the French Cultural center (CCF) in Lomé, Togo, (CCF) in Cotonou, Benin and at the “Alliance Francaise” in Accra, Ghana.
Ribouem’s first official release Bridge was a synthesis of both his Jazz and African traditional influences. The rhythm in the first track “Bantou Dream” comes from a specific area in the country, localized near Yaoundé. “Elavagnon” and “Abetita Pelete” are mixes of his native Cameroonese rhythms and the ones he was exposed to in West Africa, Togo and Ghana. As its title suggests, “Keep My Cow” is a more Saheli influenced track, and carries along traditional Fulani atmosphere of herds and shepherds. “Four on Six” is a Wes Montgomery song with African arrangements, and is a testimony of his admiration for this American jazz guitarist.
Ribouem played all the instruments on Tribute to Julie Akofa Akoussa and asked three young female Togolese singers to sing Julie’s songs. Djinadou Sylfa Fanta sang “Anyigban” in Ewe, Togo’s national language. The lyrics are about desire and death, the necessity to seize the day before its too late—truly an African “Carpe Diem”. She also sang “Asseye.” Bakpa Séraphine sang “Mabouye” and Aguda Espoir sang “Dounia.” Ribouem himself sings “Désarmement”; he includes this because Julie had performed the backing vocals on the original recording. The French lyrics are about peace and weapon control, and it was composed for a Togolese national contest on that theme around 2001. “Julie” is a song by Cameroonese composer Jo N’Doulé, sung by Ribouem in one of the 230 official Cameroonese languages.
The title of the song justifies its presence on the album as Ribouem used to sing it on stage for Julie when she was alive; it is a love song dedicated to her. The songs are about everyday life, pain, suffering, joy, love…meant to speak to the heart and soul of everyday people in Togo.
The as yet untitled new project by Ribouem will be similar to the Bridge album, with more diversity in its African inspiration. Its tracks will echo the music of the continent in its wide range of rhythms and sounds, and connoisseurs will recognize many influences coming from Sahel, West, Central and even South Africa.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Born “the son of a preacher man” in 1962 in a small town, not far away from Yaoundé, Cameroon’s political capital city, Ribouem is the eighth child of a family of five boys and four girls. His parents were teachers, working for the National Cameroon Board of Education, and had to move frequently from town to town. As a “side job”, his father became a self-taught preacher in the 7th Day Adventist Church. All the family members were musicians so Ribouem learned music very early on; still, nobody in the family intended to carry on with music as a professional activity or a full time occupation, and neither did Ribouem until he left high school.
His early musical influences are diverse. He developed an ear for the rich, traditional and folkloric Cameroonese music as a result of his parents moving from place to place. He was also touched by the church, gospel and choral music, as well as Western music since his older brothers listened and played a range of music from The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix to jazz artists like Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Ribouem was also fond of classical music, particularly Bach and Mozart. A self-taught musician, he learned music theory, harmony and modes later in life when he became a teacher at the British School of Lomé, Togo. He was forced to work for a living and also support his family since being a professional musician didn’t sustain his lifestyle.
The very first instrument that he played was the guitar, but at home and in church, he became familiar with the piano and the trumpet as well. He has since then kept up with the guitar and the piano but had to give up the trumpet 15 to 20 years ago, as it needed daily training and the necessary, everyday exercise of building lip muscles. He replaced it with the saxophone which he has been playing ever since. His first public performances took place in high school, as he was part of the school band. People from the local music community took notice and he was asked to play in nightclubs in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital.
Ribouem has a lot of unique musical gifts to offer that most people beyond his country have not yet heard. Bridge is a high-energy jazz project that blends a powerful melodic lead sax with jangling guitars and an intense and exciting African percussion groove. World music and jazz fans will also love the very different vibe they hear on the Julie tribute, which though created for the Togolese market is very appealing and seductive with its crisp instrumentation, infectious grooves and call and response vocal patterns. Since that was a one-time tribute project, it’s clear that we can expect more jazzy-African instrumental fusion from Ribouem in the future. Now that he’s back in musical gear, it’s exciting to think of the magic he will share with us across the Pond. That’s a Bridge all jazz fans should look forward to crossing.” – Jonathan Widran
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