Gabon is one of the most sparsely populated countries in West Africa, and has never evolved into a pop musical powerhouse along the lines of its neighbor Cameroon. But over the years the oil-rich, equatorial nation has managed to produce a handful of significant pop stars, as well as preserve one of the continent's most important traditional musical cultures.
The true giant of Gabonese music is composer/singer/producer Pierre Akendengué , one of Africa's great musical visionaries. Akendengué has worn many hats since embarking on a musical career in the late '60schanson singer, protest singer, cult favorite, avant-garde composer and even cultural minister. He got his start while studying abroad in France, and built a long and storied career in the 1970s, combining Gabonese rhythms and themes with the sophisticated French pop songcraft he learned as a student at the storied Petit Conservatoire de la Chanson. Perhaps his most extraordinary achievement was his 1995 collaboration with producer Hughes de Courson, Lambarena, which set Bach's "Passion of St. John" to the accompaniment of traditional folkloric ensembles from Gabon. Always a tireless champion of the music of Gabon, today Akendengué serves as a key cultural advisor to President Omar Bongo Ondimba.
Another contemporary Gabonese star is singer, drummer and former first lady Patience Dabanya.k.a. Patience Marie Josephine Kama Dabanywho incorporates the traditional music of her Bateke people in her compositions. Dabany is the ex-wife of President Albert Bernard Bongo (now known as El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba), and as first lady (then known as Josephine Bongo), she founded and sang lead in Kounabeli (Superstars), a musical group dedicated to the Gabonese Democratic Party. In 1986 she split with her husband and began recording as a solo artist under the name Patience Dabany. Since then she has recorded several solo albums, including her debut, Levekisha, and 1997's acclaimed Nouvelle Attitude. In 2005 she re-united with Kounabeli to record a new album. Though she had briefly lived abroad in the United States, she returned to Gabon in 1997 and has been recording there ever since.
Other key Gabonese artists include the singers Oliver N'Goma and Didier Ontchanga, and guitarists Georges Oyendze, La Rose Mbadou and Sylvain Avara. In the '80s Gabon briefly became a recording destination with the opening of its first recording studio, Studio Mademba, and the first radio station dedicated to African music, Africa No. 1, and some of Africa's top talent traveled to the capital, Liberville, to record. But this heyday was short-lived, and today Gabon imports much of its pop music from abroad, with soukous, rumba, rap and reggae all being very popular.
But pop music is only half the story in Gabon, where vast stretches of equatorial forest are home to traditional, forest-dwelling people such as the Bwiti, Mitsogo and Fang peoples, whose sacred and ritual music has been the subject of much academic study in the West.
The ritual music and dance of the Bwiti has been especially studied, as part of larger studies of their syncretic belief system, which combines African animist practices with aspects of Christianity.
Bwiti ceremonies are led by a spiritual leader called an N'ganga is usually well versed in the traditional "bush medicine" of the forest peoples. These ceremonies involve ritual dance and drumming and cover all aspects of Bwiti lifeincluding initiation ceremonies, healing ceremonies, and even funerals. Alongside the drums, the other key instrument of these ceremonies is the ngombi harp. Ceremonies usually begin at night and may last for days, sometimes fuelled by the mildly hallucinogenic iboga rootTom Pryor