On a cool night in Brooklyn in Mid-September, a group of musicians, friends and colleagues gathered in a meeting hall to celebrate the musician and historian Martin “Martino” Atangano’s life. A traditional dance troupe Ngoma za Kongo (from the Republic of Congo) lit up the floor in shimmering yellow customs. They danced the dance of death, pounding long powerful drums, while people brushed away streaming tears. You could touch the grief in the room. People were shaken. Martino was known not only in the New York music scene, but throughout the world for his electrifying, precise, high energy guitar playing. Originally from Cameroon, he fused traditional, upbeat dance rhythms from Africa such as the Bikutsi (more about that later) with funk and jazz. Although he had struggled with his health, his death on August 31, 2013 as a result of cardiovascular complications came as a shock not only to those who loved him, but also to those who had danced with joy to his music.
Recently, I spoke to Fred Doumbe, a gifted Cameroonian bassist, who performed many times with Martino and who knew him for over twenty years. He described Martino’s musicianship, “He was playing in a way we call Madgan in Cameroon, this is transposing the balafon’s sound onto the guitar. He muted the guitar strings to get close to the balafon’s sound. He was one of the few older musicians who could play in this way. It was a privilege to play our traditional music with him. As a musician he was versatile. He could learn something precisely and reproduce it precisely.”
Born in 1958 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Martino first found his place among musicians in his country. Yet he was too gifted to remain within its borders.
In 1986, he toured internationally with Manu Dibango, perhaps the most famous saxophone player ever to come out of Cameroon. In the same year, Martino moved to Paris to pursue graduate studies in history at the Sorbonne. It was here too that word began to get out about this talented guitarist. His authentic, elaborate guitar sound informed several noted collaborations, including with the French musician Jean-Luc Ponty and the American pop musician Paul Simon. Simon’s, “Rhythm of the Saint’s” album famously introduced more international audiences to some great African sounds.
In 1994, Martino moved to New York, where he worked as a Professor of History at St. John’s University with a focus on Central Africa. Here too, Martino finally struck out on his own, when he formed his band African Blue Note. He focused on developing a unique music alongside four key members, Joseph Jojo Kuo on drums, Todd Horton on trumpet and Flugelhorn, Mamadou Ba on bass and Azouhouni Adou on keyboards. These were musicians who came from distinct musical backgrounds, yet found a way for their music to reach common ground. They could be heard playing monthly at the Zinc Bar in New York where they developed a loving following.
Fred Doumbe describes Martino’s music: “He embraced all African music, he embraced people. He was very open to different types of sound, Soukous, Congolese music. He liked very much Fela Kuti and Nico Mbarga. He knew what was current on the market, but he also believed in what he was doing. He was into the texture of sound. He loved the sound of the Fender Stratocaster. He kept the same guitars and amps for years. You can do things with Roland amplifiers like reverb that you cannot do with modern amplifiers. He liked the modern aspect of music, like jazz, but he also liked the traditional, his music was somewhere in between. He never forgot his culture, but he also embraced all cultures. He entranced people when he played, with a natural smile, he could transport them with the music.”
This openness to different musical genres is a mark of his true greatness as a musician. Rather than remaining rigidly within one genre, his understanding and love of different sounds can be felt strongly on the last CD Martino released: “Mot Songo.” It was on this CD that much of the music Martino had been developing came together. Here the traditional Bikutsi 6/8 steady rhythm can be heard on the title track, “Mot Songo.” This is a lively, high intensity sound with Martino taking the lead and a chorus shadowing his vocals. The word Bikutsi means beat the earth, if you imagine someone jumping quickly up and down; you can begin to hear the rhythm in your mind. The CD then moves into Juju Jam, based on the Juju rhythm of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Here is a slower, more elegant rhythm that has more space to incorporate improvisation. This track features longer, more drawn out notes from the guitar, bass and sax as they interweave with one another.
Joy runs through this music, it can be felt on the song Couscous Congolese based on the Soukous rhythm with high, elaborate notes that Martino uses to create a circular dance across his guitar. Joy was Martino’s signature as a musician. It was a joy that he exuded, with never a cross word for anyone. This was an honest and loyal man in a music world that can often be brutal and harsh. One musician described how he would get up and walk away from conflict. Fred Doumbe said: “There was always a spirit of joy there, even when he played minor chords. He knew how to make people happy from inside his heart. They would want to get up and dance. You could not sit still to this music. He knew how to joke without talking. He knew how to make people laugh without saying anything.”
Martin “Martino” Atangana is survived by his wife, Lois Atangana, and his son Charles Atangana.
For more about Martin “Martino” Atangana you can visit: http://www.atangana.com
Author: Dorothy Johnson-Laird
Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a freelance world music Journalist.