6. Etundi Etundi Ambroise
This post is also available in: Catalan
Lluís Mallart i Guimerà
Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (CNRS – Paris X)
The Spokesman of the Evuzok (Cameroon) and other Masters of the Spoken Word
Etundi Etundi Ambroise had been chosen his country’s ‘zomolo’ or spokesman. He was called e ‘dzomdzomo dzal’, the equivalent of «the nation’s most important figure». He presided over all the clan’s daytime rituals, with Akoa Ignace and Atangana Dominik as his assistants. He opened up many doors for us, teaching us many things at a time when his authority and prestige were acknowledged by all. He gave us his blessing on several occasions. In the midst of a conversation at his home about certain plants’ social and symbolic connotations, he moved us by suddenly interrupting the conversation and starting to sing, improvising lyrics in which he thanked us for our visit. Indeed, many were the occasions on which I heard him improvise a song in the middle of a speech, at rituals to reconcile family members or clans, or at farewells and funerals. He was a discrete figure who lived in simple style in a mud house in a clearing by the Kpwa.
I shall only recall him here in his capacity as a superb speaker, although, through him, I would also like to remember all the Evuzok who so impressed me with their gift of speech, particularly when talking in public. I refer here to men and women. Obviously some were better than others, but generally the Evuzok had a command of the spoken word far greater than ours, here in the Western world. They knew how to improvise without stammering or getting nervous. They knew how to be coherent, to follow the thread of conversation or discourse, and to put forward arguments when proof was needed. And, if necessary, in their demonstrations, they would recall the words of their ancestors, quoting sayings or proverbs. In important speeches, the speakers would resort to established forms of speech in which a kind of dialogue was forged between the speaker and his or her audience. The latter would respond in unison by giving short or onomatopoeic replies, which I found spectacular. To cite an example:
On track 15 of the CD ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’), I give another example. We are in Aseng-Bede. It might rain (or the recording come out badly). We are at a farewell gathering. The following day, I am going to Europe. Etundi Etundi Ambroise begins to speak, displaying all his oratory expertise, this time in a somewhat entertaining way. He is a true showman. I had heard him many times at important rituals – in the midst of a gathering, generally badly dressed, perhaps to insinuate that he did not profit financially from the position that he held (I think that was the reason), allowing one group and then another to take the floor, picking up the thread of the discussion or discourse, inviting everyone to join him in agreeing or disagreeing, defying criticism, invoking ancestors, bestowing a blessing with his saliva, anointing a body with the blood of sacrificial goats etc. He was not the only one. Other Evuzok were skilful at doing the same, men and women. Although I have seen it less frequently among the women, it is also true of them and indeed everyone. Boys and girls are taught and encouraged to speak in public on evenings when stories and folktales are told. On such occasions, it might be the women who speak more and it is perhaps then that riddles come to the fore, when the children learn the language of metonyms and metaphors.
Having said that, the true maestros of the spoken word are the troubadours of the ‘mvet’ harp-zither, like the ‘griots’ of other parts of Africa, western Africa. This must be why on one of my returns to Europe, I spent the whole time carrying a ‘mvet’ round with me, like the bearer of a much valued gift. It had been presented to me by Ekundu David, a man from Zok. He was not a troubadour but a craftsman. Thank you Ekundu David, although the people that I would like to thank, if possible, are Owona Apollinaire, Ngul Zamba and Amugu Pancrace, troubadours who specialize in playing the ‘mvet’. It was them that I was no doubt thinking about when in ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’) I wrote:
«The epic deeds of the genre known as the mvet were sung in exceptional style by poets of a kind relatively comparable to our troubadours.
Such evenings’ aesthetic enjoyment did not necessarily reside in being able to understand the sung or recited texts. On most occasions, I only understood less than half. I found the literary language, particularly when sung, very hard to catch. I was fortunate to have a tape recorder and time afterwards to listen, transcribe and translate them. The aesthetic enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere that was created. Mvet evenings were a genuine delight. In a clearing in the open air, under a well-lit moonlight sky, the audience formed a circle around a man seated on a chair, the troubadour, dressed in a grass skirt, with a bare chest and bunch of feathers on his head. His arms and legs were hung with bells and he held a harp-zither in his hands. A mvet troubadour’s instrument is made of a slightly curved raffia palm branch with four strings made from its fibrous middle and half gourds, forming a sound box, fixed to the outside of the other side of the branch.
On such evenings, the atmosphere was filled with a certain exoticism. Everything was foreign, different, strange and incomprehensible to me: the rhythm; what were almost certainly complex chords from a series of seemingly very simple musical instruments; long semitonal tales that recounted the epic deeds of Akom Mba fighting against imaginary beings and peoples; melodies sung by the troubadour and taken up by the audience to create an exultant dialogue; the poet’s gesticulations; the expressive acoustics of his onomatopoeias, the audience’s ingenuity when it came to the tale’s heroes, the encouragement, the lamentations inserted into the story to recall the unfortunate life of the troubadour, initiated in the art of singing and playing the mvest. Books on anthropology say little of the fascination that spectacles like this can arouse. When we talk of Others, we forbid ourselves from expressing anything emotional, subjective or impression related as if the Other should only be regarded from a rational scientific perspective and as if, at no time, should we reveal our feelings or emotions ».
But these two things are not mutually exclusive.
During that same period, in another corner of the Equatorial jungle, in Gabon, close to the border between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, a ‘mvet’ troubadour, Zwè Nguéma, sang an epic ‘mvet’ song that lasted one whole night long, recorded, transcribed and translated into French for the ‘Classiques africains’ . I set out to study a specific theme of this ‘mvet’: the interludes and troubadour’s lamentations . In this case, they allude to another epic: that of the troubadour, who compares his life – the life of a ‘mvet’ poet – to a struggle with the world of the spirits-of-the-dead from which he gets his inspiration.
I continue my research into this ‘mvet’. I have written a summary in Catalan, some fragments of which are shown below in English :
“The people of the Engong or the Immortals are made up of thirteen big settlements. The troubadour mentions them one by one, indicating their location as you travel from the border that separates this group of people from the group known as the Mortals. Likewise, he mentions the leading figure for whom each group is known .
All the men of the Engong, without exception, leave their settlements to gather at the meeting point. The women leave their fields, watching as their warriors respond to the summons in all their magnificence, as if they were birds flying across the valleys, climbing the jagged high mountains, armed with spears that might touch the endless skies.
The people know the war drum only sounds with good reason. Some ask what has happened. Others comment that a brainless mortal has dared to defy Angone Endong Oyono and plans to kill him. The more levelheaded troubadour reminds them that «a tree is never disbarked on just one side», since if, on the one side, there are the Immortals, on the other the Mortals can be found.
Then, the troubadour invites them to contemplate that gathering of forces, which he describes in grandiose in-depth style.
The men, in their warrior gear, gather to form a single body. Along the way, the members of one clan or settlement meet up with those of another in response to the war drum. Some arrive like lightning or else they fill the esplanade like thundering drops of rain. The warriors proudly display their tattoos on their chests, backs, arms and legs. The so-called “Terrible Ones” arrive, the most powerful leaders, giving the impression of beings from another world. The people gaze at them, commenting on and approving of them, discussing things among one another as more warriors keep arriving.
The troubadour then begins a long soliloquy. The audience follows it, entering into dialogue with him. There is an exchange of sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour says that singing a mvet is like dying.
People continue to arrive. Medang arrives, making a spectacle of separating the clans when they argue. The voice of Mfule Engbang, a member of one of the three big families that make up the Engong, can be heard from the big river that acts as a frontier between the Immortals’ country and that of the Mortals. The troubadour describes this important figure. His long body swings from one side to another; his neck moves like a water snake; the pupils of his eyes look like those of a curved yellow-beaked hornbill. He is the strong man of his village, able to carry out work in a large piece of jungle all on his own. He arrives, passes in front of everyone and stops, he is here.
Now it is the turn of Otuang Mba, another leading figure from the country of the Immortals. He is an old man with a long white beard. He is bedecked with necklaces made of leopard’s teeth round his neck, forehead and ears. When he moves his head to one side or the other, the teeth jangle …kpazang, kpazang...
Suddenly the startled hens begin to cluck behind the houses. The lambs flee. The hairs on Otuang’s chest stand up. The earth trembles. A big din can be heard and the people jump. The elephant-contraption sounds loudly. The goats take fright. It is Angone Endong, known as «The iron bellows that smelt the iron » and «The odzam mammal from the rainy season that has thousands of lairs». He arrives with his elephant-contraption. Everyone draws near to see the great war machine arrive. The warriors form in three rows, raising their swords and piston-driven guns. Angone Endong says all of them must fear him, whether they are relatives on his mother or father’s side. And to ensure this, he lunges at them with his contraption. They dodge him and ring a magic bell that raises a big dust cloud. But the elephant-contraption comes at them once again. Then Elang Suga calls Mone Ebo and, with a tremendous leap, the latter lands in front of the elephant-contraption. He takes out his long, powerful, flexible sword and, as if it were a whip, he encircles and immobilizes it. Angone Endong gets out of the machine. «He is one of our leaders», exclaim the Endong people and silence falls.
Akoma Mba, the head of all the Immortals, stirs in his locally made bed like a wild beast. He gets up. He opens the door and gazes at all those people. Akoma Mba is bald with huge ears. He regards the throng of people and instructs them to wake up Engbang Ondo, the person responsible for keeping an eye on everything that happens in Engong, and to get him out of his house.
Everyone wants to see him come out of his house. His wife takes it as a joke, Akoma Mba insists. Then Akoma Mba’s order is transmitted from mouth to mouth until it reaches Nseng Ondo, a girl of outstanding beauty, with a long face, full cheeks and slender neck. «Women are beautiful in many ways», says the troubadour. In Nseng Ondo’s case, her skin is shiny like palm oil or the fruit of the adzab tree and of a colour like the branches of the raffia palm. She is a woman whose cheeks grow round when she smiles, and whose smile and words become one and the same when she talks. Her calves are big, as are her thighs. She has round knees like a fist, a navel that sticks out of her belly. She is a little shy and seems to be afraid of the men. She shines like the sun. She is more beautiful than anyone else and what makes her more beautiful than the other women is the luminous crevice that separates her right breast from her left one: a clear line like the vein of a banana leaf. Her hair shines so much that you might think she polishes her body with the rough leaves of a fig tree.
They ask her to wake up Engbang Ondo and to tell him that Akoma Mba has summoned him. She goes into his room. She pulls his legs, she touches his thighs, she shakes him but Engbang Ondo does not react. She pulls his legs again; she touches his thighs again, she takes him by the waist and shakes him again, saying: «I don’t like you when you are smug or play about with me. I know you are awake and just pretending to be asleep…» And she adds: «Some say you are cruel, bad, brave, astute and a liar; others say no one is better than you. I, on the other hand, find you feeble. How can you spend all day sleeping? Can’t you hear that Akoma Mba has summoned you to transmit great news to our country, that the wooden drums are sounding all around and that all the men are here?» Engbang Ondo takes a big leap and, all at once, he can be seen standing on the roof of Akoma Mba’s house, dressed in his warrior’s clothes with a bag full of magical objects under his arms. The men of the Engong watch open mouthed, without saying a word. He says: «Why did you call me?»
At this point, the troubadour embarks on a long soliloquy. The audience follows him and enters into dialogue with him. They exchange sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour recalls the more serious moments of his initiation and how he planned to reject the precious art of singing mvets….”
With this extract of this ‘mvet’ song that I am studying, I would like to pay tribute to these maestros of the spoken word, who are capable of spending a whole night singing and reciting the marvellous adventures of their heroes and entertaining their audiences .
1. Published by La Campana (2004, 3rd edition).
2. A ‘mvet’ by Zwè Nguéma. ‘Chant épique fang recueille par Herbert Pepper réédité par Paul et Paule de Wolf (Armand Colin, 1972)’.
3. “Les interludes du mvet de Zwè Nguéma” in ‘Journal des Africanistes’, 79-1, p. 209-240.
4. A summary of the initial study, published electronically by URV Press (Servei de Publicacions de la Universidad Rovira i Virgili): ‘Un cant epic africà. Una crítica al poder absolut’ (2014).
5. The fragments written in normal print have been summarized, whereas those in italics have been translated more literally.
6. Oral archives. Lluis Mallart Guimerà Collection, Bibliothèque Enric de Dampierre, Université Paris X (Nanterre). http://www.mae.u-paris10.fr/index.html: CD 2.3.1. – 2.3.7. (troubadours: Owona, Amugu, Bikoe, Baana and Ngal Zamba).