Waiting for gumbo : cargo cults, media and the bikutsi of Cameroon

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Rathnaw, Dennis Michael

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This dissertation examines the interaction between music, politics and the Cameroonian media in the production and role of the popular music called bikutsi. In the context of Cameroonian music, bikutsi had long been associated solely with the Beti region surrounding the capital of Yaoundé, and as such considered a marginal music patronized by the “villageois.” Nevertheless, after Paul Biya assumed the presidency of Cameroon in 1982, and his subsequent inauguration of the Office de Télévision Nationale du Cameroun (Cameroon Radio and Television-CRTV) in 1985, bikutsi acquired the importance of a national music, and indeed a minor global phenomenon. Using the politico-economic backdrop of capital at the millennium, I show how the ethos of neoliberalism has helped turn African nation-states such as Cameroon into what has been called “regimes of unreality,” divorced from economic control, dependent on a multitude of development projects in the manner of contemporary cargo cults, and left with only the semblance of fetishism with which to connect to its people. In recent years, however, the process of media liberalization has taken away the state media’s ability to enact that message, and thus the regime’s power of persuasion. Instead the populace is left with a new type of cargo, in the form of sounds and imagery to go along with the narrative of global consumer culture. This has left an opportunity for those with the skill and imagination to make use of the new information, allowing artists, musicians and writers to be the next members of a new civil society. This is what I refer to as the emancipatory promise of the new cargo cult, where instead of capital accumulation there is only ephemera—signs, sounds and images that multiply and intensify in unpredictable and sometimes dangerous ways. I use the national lens of bikutsi to analyze these dynamics on a local and global level, in the city, the quartier and the village. Ultimately, understanding the media process and cargo has the ability to allow individuals to overcome the narrow vision of political machinery, and act as another potential cog in the civil society of meaningful relationships.




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