Monday music: The politics and polyphonies of Gabon

Can I interest anyone in Gabon? Republique du Gabon … anyone? Anyone?

Now that I’ve got your attention, I hope, with the jungley and surprisingly latinesque rhythms of Pierre Akendengue, I’ll hazard a guess that, unless you are from that part of the world yourself, you don’t know much about Gabon. Unless you are French, perhaps, Gabon having been a French colony from 1885 until independence on 17 August, 1960. Or maybe you’re a World Cup fan, and you know the names of a few soccer players from Gabon, and the colours of the flag?

Why is Gabon so far from the consciousness of Australians? Is it because:

  • the afore-mentioned French connection  creates a language barrier
  • there’s no ebola outbreak there …
  • or famines …
  • or civil war; thus, no refugees or asylum seekers knocking at the doors of Fortress Australia.
  • it’s politically stable (if you can call a family monopoly on the Presidency, ‘stable’)

Or is it because:

  • The Gabonaise population of Australia is minuscule. At the 2006 Census (no one seems to have bothered updating the data since then), there were a grand total of 26 people born in Gabon, resident in Australia. Twenty Six.
  • They’re not a significant export market — less than 0.1% of Aussie exports end up in Gabon (and those that do, are not live sheep)

I guess the correct answer to my question would be: all of the above.

Which is a pity, because, like just about anywhere in the world, Gabon’s really quite interesting. Especially its dancing.

Fun facts about Gabon (and Australia)

  • Gabon is home to the elusive forest elephant. Sadly, elephant numbers are in decline due to poaching and deforestation. Okay, so that’s not actually a fun fact.
  • The people of Gabon, like the people of other parts of West Africa, like coking with chilli, okra, peanuts, fish, and cassava. They also, apparently, like eating rabbit in wine (it’s that French connection) and ‘pulped cucumbers’. No. That’s gotta be a typo.
  • Gabon is also famous, at least among those with an interest in this kind of thing, for the Bwiti spiritual tradition. So far as I can make out, Bwiti is strongly interconnected with the kinds of music and dance that you saw in that last video. I hope that by the next time Gabon Independence Day has rolled around, I will have had time to find out more.
  • AM’s dad, DadaK, spent three years building houses in Gabon in the 1980s, making money so he could come to Australia. Just thought I’d throw that in. He told me he was well paid and got on well with the boss.
  • The current President of Gabon was a singer in his feckless youth. I’ll spare you the video, search on Alain Bongo if you really want to know.
  • Said President has actually been in Australia, and shaken the hand of Julia Gillard, and talked about trade & climate change & stuff with her.
  • Bongo was the first President of Gabon ever to come to Australia. That’s because there’s only been two presidents, since 1967. But … gasp … I think this business with Gillard means I’m less than 6 degrees of separation away from the President of Gabon! Which means I’m probably around 6 degrees away from Obama, and Michael Jackson, who he’s also shaken hands with, and, and … Huh. I’ll have to add that to my LinkedIn profile.
  • While we’re on Bongo, his mum was also a singer, only she became famous — after she divorced his father. Her name’s Patience Dabany and while the Gabonese clearly love her, she sings pretty standard Soukous fare, and I didn’t find a video I passionately wanted to share, so you can look her up too, if you want.
  • Bongo is also — highly pertinent to this blog — in a mixed relationship. His wife, Sylvia, is a white woman who was born in France, but has lived pretty much her entire life in Africa. Not that I see them as role models or anything.
  • Our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop doesn’t like Bongo (perhaps with good reason) so I don’t think we’ll be seeing him back in Australia any time soon, but the Hon Regis Immongault, Gabon Minister of Mines, Industry & Tourism, will be visiting Perth next month for the Africa Downunder conference. You may wonder why.
  • Well, you see, our business leaders are acutely aware of the existence of Gabon, because, well, because OIL. In 2013 Australia imported almost a billion dollars worth of the black gold from Gabon. Think of that, next time you fill up the car. Gabon is closer than you think.
  • And not content with importing it, we are now also heading off to Gabon to look for it ourselves. Well, when I say ‘we’, I mean Australian oil & gas company Woodside Petroleum, which only last week ‘bought a 40 per cent stake in an exploration, exploitation and production acreage off the coast of Gabon‘.

I think it’s time get our heads out of the muck with a video, don’t you?

Thank you, Annie-Flore Batchiellilys, for opening up my mind, and also thank you to whoever put the video together, for showcasing all the non-petroleum, more cultural aspects of Gabon. Apparently this delightful piece is based on traditional polyphonic singing. Unfortunately not all of her stuff’s like this piece, which I think may have been the result of collaborating with an ethnographer who was recording traditional songs.

I’m sorry that I haven’t been more attentive to the actual music in this post, I got sidetracked by politics and ran out of time. I leave you with some ikoku dancing. It’s a bit long, but so joyful.

And now I’ve finished my post, I’m putting Dancing and Fishing, Joy and the celebration of fertility on my reading list, so I can find out what Gabon’s dancing is all about. Forget oil, dancing is what makes the world turn.


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