Acclaimed afro-jazz musician Gino Sitson was born in Douala, Cameroon. Like that of his homeland, which celebrates its National Day on May 20th, Sitson's journey of becoming- his journey to freedom and recognition- has been long and arduous.
In a recent rendezvous with The AFRican, Sitson recounted his fascinating life story- from music loving adolescent in Douala to young University student cum jack of all trades in France on to the singer/songwriter and bandleader, delighting audiences at renown music clubs and festivals the world over, that he has become.
Sitson originates from an ancestry of music makers and royalty in the Bazou tribe of the Bamileke people of Cameroon. His vocalist mother was director of a church choir in Douala. The current king of the Bazou is his paternal cousin.
He was introduced to music early in life: singing and playing drums in his church's choir in Douala. Against this religious backdrop, he became fascinated by the priesthood and considered devoting his life to the church, but quickly changed his mind when his brother told him he would be unable to get married and must pledge to a lifetime of celibacy. A life without a woman was one he was unwilling to embrace. "No, no, I cannot do that." He recalled, laughing.
He loved music, but his practical African family disapproved of his desire to make it his profession. So in 1986 ("late eighties, I'm not sure," he said, chuckling) he left Cameroon for the South of France to study Hotel Management. The plan, with the blessing of his family, was for him to return to Cameroon and put his degree and experience to work managing a hotel there. While tackling his official course load, he also studied music (voice, singing) at a conservatory in the south of France, and "played with some bands at a Piano Bar for extra money."
Finished with his studies on hotels and their management, he went to Paris to study languages and ethnomusicology at the Sorbonne University and Paris 13 University. He honed his instrument, receiving vocal lessons at a Parisian conservatory.
Gradually, he was drawn into the Parisian music scene and performed (drumming, singing) with, among others, Papa Wemba and Manu Dibango before going on to pursue a solo career.
His first album Vocal Deliria (1996) was voted one of the Best Twenty One Albums of 1996 by the influential French Magazine, Jazzman. "Like [the American] Downbeat [magazine]," he said. He toured France and other European countries with his Vocal-Afro-Jazz group, performing at jazz clubs and festivals in Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
His second album, Song Zin' (2002) was, like his debut, well received in France and was later re-released in the United States. It was selected by the Los Angeles Times as a "Top Ten Jazz CD of 2002" and was also nominated for a Kora (Africa's Grammy) Award.
In 2000, Sitson made New York City his home and has since jammed on many a famed stage including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Blue Note, Joe's Pub, and SOBs. At the "kick off" event of the 2005 and the 2006 New York City Immigrant Week celebrations, he performed before a delighted Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other dignitaries at New York City's Gracie Mansion.
His latest album, Bamisphere (2007), recorded in New York City, was recently released. It is a star-studded album, featuring Ron Carter (double bass), Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums), Essiet Essiet (double bass) and Helio Alves (piano).
Though Carter knew of Sitson, liked his work and even knew his manager, Sitson was still caught unawares by a phone call from the famed maestro. "I could not believe it," said Sitson. They talked, and he asked Carter if he would consider playing on the album. Carter's response: "What time do you want me there?" The rest, as they say, is history. The wonderful music they made together at that glorious recording session, as documented on Bamisphere, tells that history. Enchanting: Sitson's vocal wizardry on this album. Marvelous: his deservedly much lauded four-octave voice.
The jazzman's vocal virtuosity, composing, and arranging skills serve him well- besides being in demand for recording sessions, he does commercials for radio and television and scores films. He also leads vocal workshops for professionals, amateurs, adults and children.
Those who delight in comparisons, in branding, have called him the African Al Jarreau or Bobby McFerrin. But his musical melange of African and jazz vocals and rhythms defies pat categorizations.
His musical idols and influences run the gamut including Manu Dibango, Marvin Gaye -"People used to call me 'Marvin Sitson'"- Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and FelÃƒÂ¡ AnÃƒÂkÃƒÂºlÃƒÂ¡pÃƒÂ³ KÃƒÂºtÃƒÂ¬- to name a few. Sitson admires Fela as a musician- "He was great, you know. He created this wonderful thing, this wonderful music, Afrobeat"-and as an activist. He too believes in using the arts to comment on the political landscape. On the eve of 20th May, commemorating the day his homeland became a united republic, he reflected on the state of the Cameroonian Union. "It is sad, you know. The state of Cameroon, of Africa, the corruption . . . the African, we don't own the resources . . . [We must] use film, music to talk about the problems, like FelÃƒÂ¡ did."
After all those years of nurturing his musical career, working hard to self actualize himself, often hustling at jobs beneath his intellectual and artistic talents to keep going, he is, finally, realizing his dream- recognition in his chosen career: music maker, purveyor of joy.
"When you play and see that people like you are there, are there with you, supporting you, you feel something and that inspires you."
Gino Sitson is currently on tour worldwide promoting Bamisphere. The album is available here.
SÃƒÂ©gun OgÃƒÂºntÃƒÂ³lÃƒÂ¡ is the author of In Celebration of All that Burdens Us (2006), available here.Visit him at www.segunoguntola.com