The man who wants to bring classical music to the masses in Cameroon

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For the last five years, urban music has been on the rise in Cameroon. A new generation of musicians are representing their county throughout Africa and elsewhere. Within this widespread trend, I wanted to find out about classical music. Chatting with choirs and those who love this type of music, I realised that promoting this music in Cameroon was a real uphill battle.

I’m here at Omenkart, in the Akwa district of central Douala. This is where I’m going to meet and talk with James Nsia Ekollo, Africa’s first concert pianist. There is a love affair between him and classical music. His father, Isaac Ekollo Nsia, and grandfather are pianists. His uncle on his father’s side was a saxophonist and his mother a singer. I also want to tell you about his cousin, Justin Eba Dimbeng, who caused me to rise from my seat during the 2016 Playing for Philharmonie 2016 concert in Paris. He was playing Joseph Monthe’s famous Yahwé Kola.

Let’s get straight to the heart of the subject. He was just three years old when he began playing his first jumbled notes on a piano that belonged to his idol: his father. Two years later he gave his first piano recital. At seven, he took part in the international AGUIMUCLA classical music competition, the aim of which is to find future Mozarts. At 13, he took part in the Pan African Competition in Gabon, where he won second prize. When he got back to his home country, or Mboa as the locals say, he got to give his very first solo concert.

I always wanted a university degree. When I got my high school diploma, I asked my dad for a saxophone, which he gave me. I’ve always combined the two. In Cameroon, we don’t have a music academy so I opted for the Nkongsamba School of Fine Arts. I got a degree in Cinematographic Science, which leads to a Film Director diploma.

Having obtained the status of concert pianist at 19, he continued his life as a student, a little as if the two worlds didn’t mix.

When he finished his studies, he chose to return to classical music and develop his solo career. “I accompanied numerous classical singers when they toured Cameroon, including Jacques Greg Belobo”, he reminisces. I wanted to know what the main difficulty is with classical music. He told me: “The most difficult thing in classical music is executing it right. You can play the same notes without getting the same result. In my opinion, the most important thing is to have an outstanding technique and convey real and deep emotion.”

Three years ago, James launched a project that is close to his heart: “Les célèbres pièces de piano”, or most famous piano pieces. He thus wanted to make classical music accessible to Cameroonians.  Since its creation, he has given three recitals; one in Douala and two in Yaoundé. Nothing since then though, due to a lack of money. Passionate and optimistic, James Nsia Ekollo lives on what he gets from private lessons, shows and studio recordings. Indeed after our interview today, he’s going to a recording studio to collaborate with an artist he likes a lot:  Sandrine N. “When it comes down to it, my goal isn’t to make money but to get people to listen to my music. I’m not a businessman; I’m an artist, a musician” he adds.

I want to know what drives him and keeps him going within an environment that is not very conducive to his ambitions to say the least. Listening to him a little bit more, I get the impression he wants to share and educate… He doesn’t say that as such, but his words imply it. Furthermore, his big dream is to open a school of the arts with a capital A where classical music meets contemporary art or theatre. Right now, I only want to accompany him at my level. I often say that Cameroon has a lot of rich men but is cruelly lacking in patrons and a bourgeoisie.