April 27, 2008
There are approximately 286 different languages spoken in Cameroon. It’s impossible to guess what percentage of those languages have been represented on vintage 78rpm records. Most of the Cameroonian 78s I’ve found have been in Duala language. Today’s post features some vintage African pop in the Basaa (or Bassa) language, which is actually spoken in greater numbers than Duala.
The label Opika was based in the Belgian Congo, and is equally as important as the Congolese labels Ngoma and Loningisa, and just as rewarding to track down. Amazing African pop, guitar, rumba, and ethnographic recordings from both Congo and Cameroon (as well as high-life in Ghana) were released on Opika. This small label was started ca. 1949 by two brothers from the Greek island of Rhodes, Gabriel Moussa Benetar and Joseph Benetar. The name “Opika” came from “opika pende” in Lingala, a phrase meaning “stand firm.”
It’s not clear from my research how long Opika lasted as a company, but probably not much further than the mid- to late 1950s. However, in a very brief period of time, they and their competitor labels left one of the most amazing musical legacies of Africa. These were small labels run by immigrants who truly enjoyed the region’s music. They wanted to fill a void, they wanted to record the best of a variety of local talent, and they succeeded (although it remains to be seen how much the artists were paid for their work). According to a quote from Rumba on the River, Gary Stewart’s fantastic history of Congolese popular music, 600,000 discs a year were being sold in the region in the early 1950s.
I could find zero information on Njembe Gwet Paulemond (or Gwet Paulemond Njembe, if you westernize the name), but the aforementioned Rumba on the River contains the best history written so far about those early years in Brazzaville/Kinshasha.
Issue Number: 1949
Matrix Number: Part 25978 (M3 164630)