Something exciting is going to take place at this year's edition of the Festival d’été francophone de Vancouver, but Jacky Essombé can't say exactly what it is. She's not being secretive; she actually doesn't know exactly what will happen when the fest's World Music Fusion project brings together five artists with roots in five different countries. The participants include the Cameroon-born, Paris-raised, and now Vancouver-based Essombé herself, along with ILAM (Senegal/Montreal), Joe Amouzou (Togo/B.C.), Yoro Noukoussi (Benin/B.C.), and Canadian-born DJ Marc Fournier.
"There has been no discussion until now," Essombé tells the Straight, "because we really want it to be a creative process, coming together and being inspired on the spur of the moment, and finding what comes out. So I don't know yet, really, what I will do exactly."
Mind you, Essombé—a dancer, singer, and storyteller who specializes in traditional Cameroonian village songs—won't be going in completely blind; she knows Fournier well, regularly works with Noukoussi, and has collaborated with Amouzou in the past. The X factor is ILAM, a rising star in the Montreal scene whose songs blend Afro-pop and Senegalese rhythms with blues and reggae.
"With Yoro and Joe, we're more likely, the three of us, to be on the same page when it comes to the different rhythms," Essombé notes. "I think the difference will really be with ILAM, because in Senegal with the richness of their music, it's also very unique and very specific. They have mbalax, which is the most widely spread style—the sabar and the mbalax—and so this is going to be quite interesting to blend what we bring with that. For instance, Yoro plays the talking drum. We have talking drums all over in Africa, but it's played differently from one country to another. So for Yoro to play his talking drum to a Senegalese rhythm, that's going to be very interesting and very unique just on its own. So we meet around rhythm, because we all understand rhythm."
Rhythm is not all they have in common. While they all hail from different countries, they share a common tongue. In Essombé's own native land, which is home to some 250 indigenous cultures and as many different languages, French (and to a somewhat lesser extent English, the nation's other official language) helps unite a very diverse population.
"It's a chance for us to show and represent the fact that la francophonie is not just in France and in Switzerland and in Quebec," she says of the World Music Fusion project. "It's also all across Africa, more specifically in West and Central Africa. Those are the places where French is the language that we all communicate with one another."
For Essombé, the project is a chance to immerse herself in a fully francophone creative environment, which is a rarity in Vancouver.
"We do not communicate the same way when we communicate in French," she says of herself and her fellow francophone artists. "When we come together like this, we relate to one another in a totally different way when we relate in a totally francophone setting. And I think that will create more richness. I love collaborations, and I can collaborate with anyone. Most of my collaboration is in English, because we are in a British province. I've noticed that whenever we've done work where it has been a francophone project, it has brought out something else. You can just be more of yourself without having to translate anything in your mind.
"So there's the French, but there's also the African part," Essombé continues. "That also is another thing, because there are expressions that we say, that we speak in French, that even another French-speaking person might not understand, or they might misunderstand, because there's another meaning to that sentence as Africans. And we also have that in common. I've noticed that before. Just that alone is such a great opportunity, because it's going to be so much richer."
Festival d’été francophone de Vancouver's World Music Fusion features performances on June 23, 24, and 27 at various venues in Vancouver and North Vancouver. See the festival website for full details.