By Daniel Brown
One thing were his words. The other was the man, dubbed “the unceremonial sheriff of the backyards” in his native Cameroon. A ball of intensity who seemed unbent by his three years behind bars and the nigh-constant pressure before and after his release on 24 September 2011.
Whether he was confidently reclining in his courtyard in Mbanga, 65 kilometres from Cameroon’s economic capital Douala – sharing a healthy shot of Jack Daniels with guests who regularly showed up at his gate – or pumping himself up backstage at the Nouveau Palais de Congrès of Montreuil, just west of central Paris, Lapiro de Mbanga breathed life and oozed defiance as he shot broadsides against his arch-nemesis president Paul Biya and a regime that he said was “killing and torturing Cameroon”.
So, it is hard to grasp that this squat musician with his rapid-fire mix of barbed lyrics in pidgin, makossa and break-dance is no longer with us.
I, like so many of my colleagues and friends who had the honour of sharing his company, was hoodwinked into thinking his years in one of Cameroon’s most notorious prisons, the New Bell – “hell on earth” as it is known locally – had somehow left his health intact. When I visited him a few months after he was released, he still horsed around athletically with the youngest of his six children in the unpretentious neighbourhood where he claimed he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 2011.
He gave the same impression of defiance and strength as during those long telephone conversations between 2008 and 2011. Then, he would squat in the corner of a small cell shared by a couple dozen common-law criminals and, over a mobile phone smuggled into the New Bell, he would hammer out why he was innocent of all charges of instigating the destruction of public and private property in Mbanga.
Concert in Paris
On 8 June 2013, his last European concert saw him in buoyant form on stage, interpreting the classics that had made him the darling of Cameroon’s disenfranchised opposition movements in the 1980s and 1990s. These included ‘No Make Erreur’, ‘Pas argent no love’, ‘Kop Nie’, ‘Mimba We’ and ‘Na You’, songs which flirted with censorship and provoked the ire of officials.
But it was the 2008 composition ‘Constitution Constipée’ which the Cameroonian diaspora in Paris greeted with the greatest roar. The father-of-seven seemed undiminished by what this song lasting 7 minutes 31 seconds cost him: his freedom, severe bouts of typhoid… and possibly, in the long run, his life. He just waltzed through the crowd wielding his guitar and soaking in the applause, the slaps across the back and the wonderment that he was still alive and more than kicking.
Lapiro wore his trademark khaki army t-shirt but his fight for the disenfranchised youth in Cameroon never went beyond his biting satire and the Mboko talk he helped to invent. This use of the local pidgin, mixing English, French and Douala articulated the daily injustices he witnessed. It was deemed a threat by the Biya regime, which characteristically used threats, violence and imprisonment to attempt to silence the composer.
Undaunted by his experience behind bars, Lapiro and the U.S.-based NGO Freedom Now successfully brought his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in February 2012. The UN issued an opinion that the detention by the Government of Cameroon was arbitrary and a violation of international law. Shortly after his 2013 Montreuil concert, the Cameroonian Supreme Court annulled its 2008 ruling against the music star and ordered a retrial.
It seemed that Lapiro’s pledge to return from exile cleansed of all charges would triumph. That death denied him this ultimate rehabilitation leaves a bitter taste in the mouthes of friends and allies who have supported him these long years. People as diverse as Patrice Vigier of Vigier Guitars, Maran Turner of Freedom Now, US Senator Dick Durbin and the Freemuse team.
It is all the more unpallatable as the president responsible for much of Lapiro’s ill-health continues to defy international condemnation and common sense in his sixth term in office and has alluded to a seventh attempt in 2018, at the ripe old age of 85.
» Recording of a 17-minute interview Daniel Brown did with Lapiro de Mbanga in Montreuil in June 2013:
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RIP Lapiro de Mbanga