Few even knew she hailed from Manyu Division in the Southwest region, but her exceptionally creative impulses, great vocal versatility and revitalizing voice captured the hearts of music aficionados. Elizabeth Bessem Manga, known the world over as Bebe Manga was a cultural icon of awesome proportions. She died Friday, July 1, 2011, from a heart attack in Douala, and was buried on July 30, 2011. The glowing tributes that trailed her demise, was testimony; if at all any was needed, that in this woman of grace, yet modest persona, Manyu and Cameroon indeed, lost one of their own!
On stage, Bebe Manga was a natural and consummate performer; a larger-than-life figure who bestrode the Cameroonian music landscape like the colossus that she was; captivating her fans with an angelic voice, a magnetic smile and a dynamic vocal range that could induce delusions of intimate contact.
Bebe Manga could sing Makossa with the rendition of a native Douala speaker, but her Manyu kith and kin remember her for some of the most enchanting songs in her native dialect, distinguishable by the epigrammatic blend of Kenyang and English language. Indeed her music was a language of universal appeal, demonstrating great versatility in a variety of languages and settings that touched people across different nations; from Mota Benama through Na Meya to Alice Agbor and Bele Sombo.
Music lovers, the world over, adored Bebe Manga because of her inspiring lyrics and impassioned music. But her personal life was an epic tragedy of domestic upheaval, “self-exile” and sometimes, torment. A true Bayangi woman to the core in word and in deed; her music reverberated with consciousness about the real conditions of women in their perennial quest for self-emancipation. Her traditional Bayang songs delivered with a Makossa rendition captured the fundamental values of the Manyu character in all its many contradictions.
Born to sing
Bebe Manga was born on November 27, 1948 and hails from Tinto, Upper Bayang Sub-Division in Manyu Division, South West region. She told The Herald in a 1999 interview that her musical career which dates back to 1979 at the then Bar Americain cabaret in Douala was the by-product of an “accident” She had gone on a routine relaxation outing with friends, when one of the bar performers staged a belated rendition of the song “kissa kissa” which happened to be one of her favorite songs. Her entourage exhorted the Bar owner that Bebe Manga could sing better, and the manager took the challenge and gave her the chance. She produced a rhapsodic and scintillating performance that captivated and held the audience spellbound. The Bar manager could not help, but hire her instantly! And so began her roller-coaster career which took her to several African countries – Zaire, Togo, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast.
It was in Ivory Coast where the proprietor of the “Son de Guitare” cabaret/night club where she sang, gave her the sobriquet “Bebe.” She said since she had become the crowd favourite at the nightclub, the owner started referring to her as “Mon Bebe Prefere.” And soon everyone started calling her “Bebe”, and eventually the name stuck. Her meteoric rise to the top came in 1980 when she replayed Ebanda Manfred’s 1962 radio hit, “Amie” (French for “friend”), using her golden voice to transform a hitherto unknown song into a worldwide classic that hit the top music charts.
Her version of that song called “Amio” earned her the “Maracas D’or” award from the music production and marketing corporation, SACEM. In the last two decades, Amio has been replayed in different languages by musicians in Europe, the Caribbean, Latin and North America, and Africa, amongst them André Astasié, Nayanka Bell, Manu Dibango, Papa Wemba, Monique Séka and Jackie Biho. She was voted one of the best all time African artists.
A great entertainer turned humanist
Bebe Manga was a musician first and foremost. Her music not only brought her fame and fortune but also became vocal symbols to raise awareness about the plight of children. Although she never had any biological children herself, she raised so many, who called her, mum. “I think the Almighty God gave me a voice, which means He wanted me to sing; which is what has made me famous…I am very grateful and I cannot ask for more because only God knows why He decided that I should not have children.” Bebe Manga was also a philanthropist, believing in the cause of humanity and extending a hand of friendship to the needy and less privileged.
She also endured some bizarre domestic and showbiz episodes. When her marriage to the famed Dr. Ako Defang (AD) Mengot collapsed, she succumbed to a kind of emotional paralysis yet this part of her life, seldom discussed, became a major source of inspiration for some of her songs dealing with society’s foibles, such as domestic violence, marital infidelity, polygamy, inter-tribal marriages, death and life beyond this realm. In showbiz, she once failed to appear for a show in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and when she returned years later, she was jailed for a night until the outstanding financial penalty was paid on her behalf.
She finally returned to Cameroon in the 1990s and became a first choice performer at national culture and arts festivals but the music business had moved on and, despite working with stars like Manu Dibango and Tom Yoms (also of blessed memory), the opportunities for giving concerts had diminished. She was planning to grace the Manyu Elements Cultural Association (MECA) Canada convention, when she suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the Douala Laquintini hospital where Doctors were unable to revive her.
An artist with a social conscience
Bebe Manga’s music sprang from deep inside her soul. Millions of people were inspired by this charismatic, electrifying Manyu woman with a matchless ability to touch the human spirit with her moving voice. Her voice as the signature song in the movie Potent Secrets undoubtedly raised the profile of the film.
Bebe Manga produced several albums and videos with an audience reaching across Cameroon, West and Central Africa, Europe and North America. Her lyrics thunder with rare Bayang resonance, as she sang from the very depths of her heart, which in turn struck a chord deep down our soul. She leaves behind a rich legacy. The best way to pay homage to the towering memory of Bebe Manga is to uphold the values that she so selflessly embodied.
Love was the essence of Bebe Manga‘s life. She gave it to all who came her way in full measure. In her songs, in her smile and her sweet personality, Bebe Manga conveyed great warmth. Her life was full of ups and downs: but she was a true artist; a great entertainer with a social conscience. While we celebrate the life she lived, we should equally ask ourselves what abiding qualities we can learn from her rich and meaningful life. Cameroon will produce other great singers and greatly talented women. It is however doubtful that Cameroon will produce another Bebe Manga. Adieu Golden Voice; may you reincarnate as a Manyu woman!
By Valerian Ekinneh Agbaw-Ebai, Boston USA