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Peter Moore: African Revolutions

In our regular feature, travel writer and magazine editor Peter Moore writes about his love for African music.

Busy Moken Music

You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist who is more singular than the West African artist/designer/musician Moken.

His songs are epic yet intimate, exotic yet universal and are all sung in a voice pitched high and low and all points in between. There's an Afro-Cuban beat here; a bit of Senegalese mbalax there. There's even a touch of mariachi on "The Man That Never Gives Up". Listen to his debut album, Chapters of My Life, and you'll find yourself laughing at the audacity of it all.

Moken arrived on the scene fully formed. There's a touch of the Grace Jones about him on the cover of Chapters of My Life but I've been describing him to my friends as a kind of West African Anohni from Anohni and the Johnsons. It helped, too, that his debut album was produced by Blick Bassy and world music heavyweight Jean Lamoot.

But there's something more: a complex amalgam of thoughts, experiences and sounds. Everything he does feels hand-crafted, each song a lifetime in the making.

Maybe that's because Moken has squeezed so much into his life so far. He grew up in Limbe, a small coastal town in Cameroon, surrounded by music from Cameroon's main ethnic groups, the Bassa, the Duala and others.

"I'd run up the hill to dance with one tribe," he recalls, "and then run down and dance with another."

He'd also hear the music foreign tourists brought with them from around the world. Nina Simone and Van Morrison were particular influences.

"Astral Weeks is one of my favourite albums of all time," says Moken. "My voice came from Van Morrison, from Nina Simone and from Manu Dibango. If you put it all together, it's me. It's all me."

Moken is also a visual artist and fashion designer and according to his bio: "The twist of a strip of leather, the fold of a fall of cloth, suggest wild possibilities to [...Moken], as do the little riffs and licks that he slowly builds into chronicles of his life."

Indeed, it was on the way to his atelier in Cameroon that Moken the performer was born. Each day he would walk past the same group of guys hanging on the corner playing "Redemption Song" on battered guitars. One day he stopped, busted a few quirky moves, sang a few humorous riffs and went on his way.

Winning the U.S. Green Card lottery was the final piece of the puzzle. It allowed him to go to a design college in Detroit and work with the materials and ideas he loved.

Life in the U.S. wasn't easy. He spent most of his college career living out of his car. But he got his degree before falling in with some Senegalese musicians who helped him flesh out his first arrangements for mbalax-inspired tracks like "Ma Masse".

"There's a Bassa proverb that says that truth is hidden in our pain," he says.

Apparently it is hardship and struggle that reveals it. Thankfully all you have to do to find that truth is load up Chapters Of My Life and press "play".

Peter Moore is the author of six travel books, including The Wrong Way Home, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted and The Full Montezuma. He is also the editor of The Vagabond Imperative, which you can find here.


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