Muntu Valdo: Prince of Sawa Blues

MuntuValdo(cBumiThomas)This article originally appeared in Songlines, #76 (June 2011) p22. Photo by Bumi Thomas. Download a pdf here.

“It’s not really blues like you know it. It’s not Mali blues, it’s not desert blues, it’s not Delta blues. It is blues from the Sawa people.” Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Muntu Valdo explains how he first coined the term ‘Sawa blues,’ while putting the finishing touches on his debut album. He was often told his music sounded bluesy and thus ‘Sawa blues’ was created. “People have done it before me and still do it. But at the time there was no label on it or a name.” Muntu has been the Prince of Sawa blues ever since.

While Muntu’s music is rooted in the sensibilities of the Sawa (an ethnic group located along the Cameroonian coast in West Africa), he has been influenced by various styles from all over the world – samba to soul, bossa nova to blues. “I have been influenced by everything music could offer. I’m the product of the Global Village. People can understand where I come from – even if they don’t understand the language. Music doesn’t need language.”

Muntu’s musical career began after meeting fellow Cameroonian and jazz pianist Eko Roosevelt, who asked Muntu to play guitar in his big band. Three years later, in 1998, Muntu struck off on his own and created the Muntu Band, later known as Mulema (The Heart). The band featured on his debut album Moiye Na Muititi (Gods and Devils), which focused on the duality of mankind – good and bad, light and dark, gods and devils.

While he was in France finishing the album, Muntu was asked to play numerous solo gigs. “I started to think, ‘If I play solo more and more, I need to develop a proper show. Something to make me not miss the band.’” And so he made a name for himself as a successful and entertaining solo act.

Muntu has wowed audiences with his one-man-band style live performances ever since. By creatively using technology to loop and manipulate his sound, he creates the illusion of being the visible member of an otherwise invisible band.

“[The One & The Many] is the title of my album, but it is also the title of my formula,” he explains. All of the tracks on the album are composed and performed by Muntu, using many of his live performance techniques. Carrying the album’s only musical credit, Muntu does it all – playing the guitar, harmonica, vocals, bass, percussion, and even the ngombi (West African harp). His impressive feat, no pun intended, is accomplished with the use of a pedal board laid on the floor with which he can loop and layer his sound. As the sleeve notes state ‘one man thus multiplies into an elaborate assembly of sounds’ – being both ‘the one and the many.’

The lyrics are deep and meaningful, yet remain hopeful. ‘I will put on my jacket of joy…’ Keeping in line with the title, the album also explores the relationship between the individual and the collective. In the track ‘Ate Aye’ a child tells his parents ‘I can’t do these simple things without you.’ The soulful tracks ‘No Mercy’ and ‘Djongo (The Sword)’ address the colonial history of Africa and the continuing challenges faced by its citizens. Muntu sings in Douala, the language of the Douala people who are part of the larger Sawa ethnic group, and the sleeve notes offer complete translations so as not to lose the message.

Muntu says he offers this album as a testament to the power of the individual. “We are so many things within ourselves,” he philosophically explains, “you can use those many things to create something harmonious.” He hopes to send the message, especially to African youth, that “you can do things on your own if you don’t have means, or if you don’t have a lot of people.”

To date, Muntu has toured the world with some of Africa’s biggest names in music – including Ali Farka Touré and Staff Benda Bilili. This summer, he joins yet another powerhouse of African music, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as he supports them on their UK tour in May and June. What’s next for Muntu? “As soon as the album is done, my head is already on the next project… The next project will be completely different to this.”

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