Last year we published Elsa M’bala’s story “December Rain” on Bakwa Magazine. We recently caught up with her to see what she’s been up to.
The main character in your story, “December Rain”, is a free spirit, belonging here and nowhere, always in transit and in search of meaning in her life. What inspired the story?
My first source of inspiration when I write is always myself and the people that I am close to. I feel like my own psychiatrist. I like spending time alone and this enables me to reflect and analyze the ‘what if’ of my decisions. Being a Cameroonian girl in Germany, one has to take the time to understand the complexities involved in being a minority outside of the household and what belonging to a system that refuses to acknowledge your existence means.
It is important to note that the main character is nameless. I’d like to believe this is a metaphorical attempt to highlight the character’s struggle with her identity. Was the namelessness a deliberate act on your part?
Yes and no, I started writing the story without thinking about naming the character and eventually I felt like it was best to leave that space blank. The character has a name (in my head), but one that does not reflect her identity to the fullest. A name that was given, not chosen, which is exactly how she feels about her life.
When did you start writing?
Cartoons were my first choice. I started drawing anime when I was about 9 years old. During the summer vacation I would cut and tape the blank pages from my school books together and create stories. I always got into trouble because sometimes I would even take my brother’s books if I thought I needed them. I started writing songs when I moved to Germany and received a guitar from my mother. It wasn’t until during my studies that I experimented with poems and short stories.
Apart from writing, you are a musician and a social worker. Through the years of doing all these, do you think there are some themes or issues that writing can’t adequately address as opposed to music, or that both can’t handle but which are better suited for your role as a social worker? And secondly, how do you create a balance so that one doesn’t disrupt the flow of the others?
I definitely feel like music has a broader range of emotions. Stories have a language barrier, and even though I speak and write in more than 4 languages, I get easily frustrated when I realize that there is little variation in the topics. Both are communication tools and, as a pedagogue, I found myself using them to my advantage. Because of these gifts, I can interact with diverse people and always create a connection with them no matter their field of interest. Finding the balance between everything I do is a constant readjustment, because both take a lot of personal involvement and I have to constantly remind myself that I am not here to save the world but to help others heal and grow, something I can only do if I am rested and well myself.
Going back to live in Cameroon for the last 4 years helped me remember that as a child, I was heavily into anime and Japanese action movies and the sound in those is purely 80’s synthesizer, something I always desired to grasp but was not sure if it was “black” enough or female.
Your recent music is a breakaway from your earlier style. Is there a reason why you’ve decided to do conceptual and experimental music? How do you describe your current musical style?
I always try to jump out of my comfort zone while creating art, which is not an easy thing to do when you are trying to earn a living from art. In the end, it is the only tool that allows me as a black female human to express myself freely and honestly. I don’t know how to make art that is not representative of my inner self. Since I evolve every day, I believe it is normal to see my growth reflected in the type of art I do.
My current style might be described as Experimental Soul. Going back to live in Cameroon for the last 4 years helped me remember that, as a child, I was heavily into anime and Japanese action movies and the sound in those is purely 80’s synthesizer, something I always desired to grasp but was not sure if it was “black” enough or female. This is almost laughable now, but I truly went through this process of second-guessing all my choices because of my ethnicity. Being able to reconnect with my childhood gave me enough confidence to see that it is what I truly want to do now.
What can you say about your musical influences, with regards to your earlier style and your present style?
I actually love different types of music. My earliest memory of music was my mother cleaning the house to loud music by Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eboa Lotin. It was not until I left Cameroon and did my own research that I got in touch with the music of Francis Bebey, Anne Marie Ndzie, Richard Bona, and les Têtes Brulées. The 90’s RnB was also big and, while growing up, we had satellite TV, so I was exposed to musicians like Aaliyah, Timbaland, Princess Erica, IAM, and Erykah Badu. I listened to everything.
Later in Germany, my brother introduced me to Hip Hop with artists like DMX and Busta Rhymes as well as Björk, who had the most mesmerizing videos. I had a Punk phase, which was not so common in the German village I was living in, and I got connected to friends who are an African parent’s worst Nightmare, I guess. They introduced me to drugs, Rammstein, and electronic music. As I started writing poems and performing, I looked up to people like Mutabaruka, Mos Def, Dead Prez, and Peter Tosh. Today, I’ll say that everything that sounds complex and pleasing to my ears gets my attention.
Can you shed more light on the Addis’63 Project which you recently performed at a couple of events?
Addis’63 is a sound performance and a podcast series I am currently working on. It is based on the speech of the former Ghanaian president and Pan Africanist leader, Kwame Nkrumah, at the African Union in Addis Ababa in 1963. He shed light on various issues affecting the continent as a whole more than 50 years ago. Those issues are unfortunately still present today as he also predicted. His vision of change for the African continent was tossed aside and this led us to where we are today. In Addis’63, I use samples of his vocals as well as some recordings I did while in Ghana and Ethiopia.
I hope to continue the project and to perform it throughout the continent first, and, eventually, share it online. I found that the reactions of the crowd in Yaounde led to interesting discussions. The heavy synthesizer sounds, mixed with my poems and songs, left most of them wanting to understand more, which is exactly the aftermath I always hope that my work has on people.
“L’arbre puissant qui mentait beaucoup” is an important song with regards to the direction your music is taking. Can you discuss the creation process as well as what the song means to you?
Yes, that piece is part of research I’m doing on Bikutsi music, which is ternary based like most African sounds are. It is actually a song by les Têtes Brulées, one of the most popular punk Bikutsi groups from Cameroon. They were excellent musicians and true performers. They had a whole concept about their sound and outfits. The original song is called “Essingan”, which is the name of a tree that is supposed to get rid of bad spirits. For the remix, I reversed the song and played with the pitch and some effects. The most interesting aspect is that the song’s structure is still recognizable. Contrary to a binary song, most pop songs sound completely different going through the same process.
I am working with a visual artist from Mbalmayo, Wilfried Mbida, on a sound installation that will hopefully involve some coding with Raspberry Pi and Bikutsi arrangements. It will be presented by the end of this year in London. It is part of a larger exhibition curated by the British-Cameroonian curator, Christine Eyene.
Any future project from you that we should look out for?
I am currently working on various podcasts – mostly for online platforms, and on an exhibition for next month in Paris surrounding the work of the late Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo.