Producing Culture from Afar: Equatoguinean Musicians in Spain

Over the past three decades, a number of popular musicians from Equatorial Guinea have settled in Spain. Taking advantage of new infrastructures, better-established record labels, and a variety of contacts within the Spanish and European culture industry, these artists have not only promoted Equatoguinean music in Spain, but also influenced popular music-making in their home country. Writing and performing music far away from home, they have also deeply reflected on the possibilities of Equatoguinean music while struggling to improve their livelihoods and maintain their traditional culture.

In this post, I introduce the musical biographies of one band (Las Hijas del Sol) and two singer-songwriters (Mastho Ribocho and Barón Ya Búk-lu) who have been particularly crucial in the development of the Equatoguinean music made in Spain. Whereas Las Hijas del Sol gained huge popularity while tied to major record labels, Ribocho and Barón have mostly walked through the harsh but free path of self-production, making great personal and financial efforts to create, produce, and distribute their music. Moreover, these artists have made valuable contributions to the overall promotion of African culture in Spain, which doesn’t have as large colonial ties with Black Africa as other European countries.[1]

 

Las Hijas del Sol: From the World Music Scene to the Mainstream

This overview starts with Las Hijas del Sol, one of the first Equatoguinean bands to be based in Spain, and by far the most successful and popular one. Las Hijas del Sol (meaning “The Daughters of the Sun”) was a duet comprising an aunt and a niece, Piruchi Apo and Paloma Loribo, two female members of the Bubi people of Equatorial Guinea.[2] Piruchi and Paloma moved to Spain in the mid-1990s, started a career within the increasingly popular “world music” scene, and recorded six albums before breaking up in 2004.

After a couple of performances in Spain at the Seville’s Expo ’92 and the Festival OTI de la Canción, Las Hijas del Sol settled in Madrid in 1994. While trying to find their own place in the musical scene of the city, they fortuitously met Manuel Domínguez—head of the label Nubenegra—and ended up signing a contract with the label for three CDs (Manuel Domínguez, personal interview, March 23, 2014).[3] A few months later, Las Hijas released their first album, Sibèba, which in Bubi means “what everybody fights for.” With a very traditional hue, Sibèba earned positive reviews and allowed the duet to find their space within the European world music scene. The lyrics of this album describe many of the Bubi traditions but also touch on the singers’ struggle as immigrants in Madrid. The song “Sibèba” demonstrates the musical range of this album.

"Sibèba." Las Hijas del Sol

In Las Hijas’ career, what stands out the most is probably their quick change of style and identity discourse. After their first album, their music became more hybridized with other world musics, incorporating elements from funk and rock, as well as other African genres such as Afrobeat (e.g. their albums Kottó [1997] and Kchaba [1999]; see also Jarque 1999). And by the early 2000s, they decided to move away from their first label, Nubenegra, and sign a contract with Zomba Records, a label that had produced records for mainstream, pop artists such as Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys. In this period, Las Hijas became a household name in Spain and Europe. They passed from being reviewed in the World Music Charts Europe to be included in the Top 40 charts and labeled under the genre “latino” (“Las Hijas Del Sol” 2014).

Even though their switching labels signaled a move away from their more traditional music, Las Hijas considered the change positive. Piruchi, one of the members of Las Hijas, affirmed to me: “I believe the change wasn’t bad at all: it allowed us to have way larger sales and more popularity, so we could take our language a bit further from home” (Piruchi Apo, personal interview, May 28, 2014). But as the interest from the Spanish audience grew, the band began to incorporate more and more songs in Spanish, a language that they spoke well and made them stand out among other African immigrants.[4] Spanish professor Dosinda García-Alvite (2004) has interpreted this switch from Bubi to Spanish as a “strategic choice”: the expression of their ethnic identity that granted them popularity in the beginning of their career did not guarantee the same success years later. In this period their song “Ay, Corazón!,” from their album Pasaporte Mundial, was a huge hit and topped several charts in Spain in 2001 (“La Lista 40” 2001).

"Ay, Corazón!" Las Hijas del Sol

Overall, Las Hijas were an example for many young artists from Equatorial Guinea. The band’s local and international success has yet to be met by any of other Equatoguinean musician or band. Moreover, after their break up in 2004, Las Hijas have continued performing and producing other kinds of cultural works. Today, Paloma is a Madrid-based writer and artist and Piruchi has become a major music promoter in Equatorial Guinea, where she also teaches singing lessons and has recently opened a recording studio.

 

Mastho Ribocho: A Promoter of Bubi Culture

Mastho Ribocho is considered one of the greatest Bubi singer-songwriters. Although not as popular as Las Hijas del Sol, he has been promoting Bubi culture in Spain for over 20 years, ever since he moved to Madrid in 1992. Ribocho was born in Basakato, a small village in the Island of Bioko that is known for its high production of singers and musicians. For him and other artists his age, learning music was not an easy task. During the 1970s (the decade when dictator Francisco Macías devastated his country and his people), Ribocho and his friends performed with homemade, 3-stringed guitars. By the 1980s, Ribocho, accompanied only by his guitar and a few female dancers, became popular in Malabo. And just like Las Hijas del Sol, Ribocho performed at the Seville’s Expo ’92 and then decided to move to Spain to try to improve his working conditions (Mastho Ribocho, personal interview, August 3, 2015).

Ribocho’s passion and desire to preserve and pass on Bubi ethnic traditions stands out in his songs and lyrics. But he’s been constantly investigating ways to modernize and “universalize” the Bubi traditional music—especially the kattyà, a genre characterized by the absence of percussive instruments. In his own words: “People have already accepted our rhythms. But we need to universalize them. Because I think it is the only hope for our traditional music” (personal interview, August 3, 2015). Ribocho’s concern for the loss of Bubi traditions (especially their language) is shared with many other members of the community in Equatorial Guinea and abroad. In the last few decades, the Bubi people have lost political power and territory to the Fang majority, and the quick spread of European languages (especially Spanish and French) are preventing the young generations from learning their ancestors’ language.[5]

The following song, “Ë mmé Bisila” (“Mother Bisila”)[6] is one of Ribocho’s most popular tunes. The lyrics, written in Bubi, are highly spiritual and make various references to cultural and religious traditions (see Riloha Ebuera 2007 for a translation).

“Ë mmë Bisila.” Mastho Ribocho

 

Barón Ya Búk-lu: trovador urbano

Barón Ya Búk-lu is arguably one of the most eclectic artists from Equatorial Guinea. He is a remarkable singer-songwriter, producer, actor, cultural promoter, and musical activist. Born Juan María Ngomo Eyui, he grew up in Micomeseng, in the continental region of Equatorial Guinea. Unlike Las Hijas del Sol and Mastho Ribocho, Barón is a member of the Fang ethnic group.[7] Due to his innovative modernization and re-creation of the Fang traditional styles, Barón has come to be known as a trovador urbano (“urban troubadour”), and today remains a major figure of the Equatoguinean culture in Madrid.  

His popularity as a singer grew after joining Obóo Kura, a popular mèndzáng (Fang traditional xylophone) band that used to play at various celebrations and festivals. During the late 1970s, Barón toured Equatorial Guinea and recorded a few tracks in the Bata radio station.[8] By the early 1980s, however, the socio-politic and economic situation of the country forced him to flee, settling first in Gabon and then (in 1988) in Spain. There, Barón collaborated often with different African and Equatoguinean bands (including Las Hijas del Sol and Afro-Brass, a group led by Equatoguinean drummer Alex Ikot). And by the mid-1990s he self-produced his first major album—B.B. Project (1996).

Barón is considered a pioneer of self-production in Spain and today represents the prototypical Equatoguinean singer-songwriter. In his own words:

[Since I arrived in Madrid], I was sending out my songs. Some people told me: “your music is too African, there’s no place for it here”; and some others said it was too modern and not African enough. Somewhere else, I was told: “you should sing a bit more in Spanish”; and yet in other places they said: “you shouldn’t be singing in Spanish, but in Fang.” They were driving me crazy. So I said: “look, I’m going to do whatever I want.” So I created my own label—Ngomo Line. (Personal interview, August 3, 2015)

As his words demonstrate, Barón’s interest in self-production was born as an act of resistance that reflects the contradictory experiences many migrant musicians face. However, he’s been a leading example for many Equatoguinean musicians in the last few years: as label contracts and live music opportunities have decreased, more and more artists are forced to use of low-cost, new technologies to self-produce their music and distribute it online through websites such as SoundCloud. Since his moving to Spain, Barón has self-produced about a dozen albums, including major works such as Actitud Bantú (2001), Fanglosofia (2006), and Afrobeatziako (2009).[9]

Barón’s influence on Equatoguinean music has gone beyond his explorations as a producer. As a songwriter, he’s well-known for his eclectic combinations of Fang traditional music with other genres such as rap and funk. Indeed, some of his collaborations with Spanish rappers are well known. In the following song, “Sólo para Adultos,” Barón sings with Spanish-Equatoguinean rapper El Chojin.

"Sólo para Adultos." El Chojin feat. Barón Ya Búk-lu

Finally, one of Barón’s recent enterprises has been the coordination and organization of the Festival Africanos en Leganés, an African cultural festival celebrated in the outskirts of Madrid.[10] With the support of the City of Leganés, known for its large Black population, the festival features every year a number of African artists but also different musical fusions with Spanish local genres, such as Flamenco.

Promotional Image of the 2nd edition of the Festival Africanos en Leganés. This edition was a homage to Papa Wemba, the recently deceased Congolese singer and musician.

 

To Conclude

Musicians such as Las Hijas del Sol, Mastho Ribocho, and Barón Ya Búk-lu have struggled to grab the Spanish audience’s attention. Although each one of them has contributed to their culture in different ways, all have promoted Equatoguinean and African culture in Spain. At the same time, they have greatly influenced the musicians living in Equatorial Guinea today. Through teaching lessons or re-creating traditional genres, promoting self-production or opening record labels, the individual experiences gained by a few musicians who moved from Equatorial Guinea to Spain are today transforming Equatoguinean popular music at large.

 

References

Barón Ya Búk-lu. 1996. B.B. Project. Madrid: Ngomo Line [CD].

_______. 2001. Actitud Bantú. Madrid: Ngomo Line [CD].

_______. 2006. Fanglosofía. Madrid: Ngomo Line [CD].

_______. 2009. Afrobeatziako. Madrid: APCA; Ngomo Line [CD].

Central Intelligence Agency. 2016. “Equatorial Guinea.” CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ek.html. Accessed August 2, 2016.

Feld, Steven. 2000. “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music.” Public Culture 12(1):145–71.

García-Alvite, Dosinda. 2004. “Strategic Positions of Las Hijas Del Sol: Equatorial Guinea in World Music.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 8(1):149–62.

Jarque, Fietta. 1999. “Las Hijas del Sol hacen un álbum en homenaje a Fela Kuti y el ‘Afrobeat.’” El País. http://elpais.com/diario/1999/11/05/cultura/941756413_850215.html. Accessed June 8, 2014.

“La Lista 40.” 2001. 40 Principaleshttp://los40.com/lista40/cuando_naciste/20010922. Accessed May 25, 2014.

Las Hijas del Sol. 1996. Sibèba. Madrid: Nubenegra/Intuition [CD].

———. 1997. Kottó. CD. Madrid: Nubenegra/Intuition [CD].

———. 1999. Kchaba. CD. Madrid: Nubenegra/Intuition [CD].

______. 2001. Pasaporte Mundial. Madrid/Zomba Records [CD].

“Las Hijas Del Sol.” 2014. iTuneshttps://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/las-hijas-del-sol/id28219519. Accessed May 8, 2014.

Riloha Ebuera, Mª Caridad. 2007. “Entrevista a Mastho Ribocho.” Oráfrica 3:91-97.

Taylor, Timothy D. 1997. Global Pop: World Music, World Markets. New York: Routledge.

 

Notes

[1] Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony from 1778 to 1968. Indeed, it was the only Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa and it’s today the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa.

[2] The Bubi ethnic group has traditionally inhabited the Island of Bioko, where Malabo, the capital city, is located. The Bubi are the second majority group, with about 6.5% of the total population (Central Intelligence Agency 2016).

[3] Nubenegra is known as one of the first Spanish labels to promote the so-called “world music,” a category created in the late 1980s that flourished in the US and Europe as a genre in the 1990s (Feld 2000, Taylor 1997).

[4] Spanish still is one of the official languages in Equatorial Guinea and one of the most widespread.

[5] This theme is also reflected in the music of Las Hijas del Sol.

[6] Bisila is the name given to the mother of God in the Bubi culture. Today, it’s the name used to refer to Virgin Mary among Catholics.

[7] The Fang are the majority ethnic group in Equatorial Guinea (about 85%). They are originally from the continental region (they also live in areas of Cameroon and Gabon) and today are in control of most socio-political institutions in the country.

[8] Bata is the largest urban center in continental Equatorial Guinea.

[9] The following is a link to Barón’s SoundCloud page: https://soundcloud.com/baron-ya-buk-lu

[10] The following is a link to the festival’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Festival-Africanos-En-Legan%C3%A9s-789416941155522/

 

Biography

Pablo Infante-Amate recently completed his M.A. in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, where his work was supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, and he is about to embark on his Ph.D. studies at the University of Oxford. He is interested in the music of Equatorial Guinea and his current research focuses on the effects of oil capitalism and digital media on the popular music of this tiny Central African country. Pablo holds degrees in music education, musicology, and percussion performance from several Spanish universities. 

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