Francis Bebey,
an internationally revered singer-composer, instrumentalist, poet, novelist, historian, intellectual, and human rights advocate; died in France of a heart attack on May 28, 2001. He was 71.

Bebey was a sophisticated world citizen who was nonetheless passionately devoted to preserving endangered African traditions. He was born in Douala, Cameroon, on July 15, 1929. Although his early education under French colonial rule belittled his native culture, he fell in irrevocably love with African music before he was out of his teens. Bebey moved to Paris, France during the 1950s to attend the Sorbonne. While there, he attended a concert by the Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia, which Bebey later described as a turning point of his own development as a guitarist. Afterwards, he worked in radio and as a print journalist before taking over as head of the music department at UNESCO's Paris offices from 1968-74. He also published important musical treatises and a dozen novels; one of which, Le Fils d'Agatha Moudio, won the Grand Literary Prize of Black Africa in 1967.

He studied diverse African styles for decades before becoming a professional musician. Bebey's works ranged from ethnic-based acoustic pieces, to energetic Cameroonian makossa dance sets, to orchestral works inspired by his life-long interest in Latin music and American jazz. He was a famous guitar virtuoso and also mastered African instruments like the mibira , or sanza (thumb piano,) and the notoriously demanding pygmy flute. As his immersion into African folklore deepened, he gradually developed into a griot - a specific type of musician/historian/story-teller that has existed at various places on the continent since ancient times. One of his final appearances was at a poetry festival in South Africa, where the charismatic septuagenarian charmed and awed his audiences despite his obviously fragile health. Few of Bebey's 25-plus albums are presently available in the United States, but important titles like Guitar Makossa, Dibiye, Djanjo Preface, Mwana O, Paris-Dougou, Lambarene Schweitzer, Sourire de Lune , Travail au Noir, and Fond d'Ivresse can be located online or through Stern's Music US. - Christina Roden

Photo by Jeevea Rajgopaul

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