When Moken [Nunga] sings, a lifetime of passion emerges from his voice. This lifetime began in the Cameroonian town of Limbe and presently resides in Houston, TX. Everything in between has found its way into the soulful journey that is Chapters of My Life, Moken’s phenomenal debut album. It’s an amalgam of the very things that make up the essence of Moken, the man, the musician, the artist. Where there’s a struggle, there’s an unrelenting spirit of perseverance. He characterizes himself as the “glass half full” type of person, an optimist.
This is not because he’s lived without challenges. Moken came to America in his twenties for design school, quickly coming to the realization that 90s Detroit was not the same Utopian paradise that he had imagined America to be as a child growing up in Cameroon. But from the moments that may have broken down the spirits of others, Moken drew inspiration.
He’s felt the magic of music since he was a child winning local dance competitions. When he was a teen, Moken sprinted into town to get a glimpse of the iconic Manu Dibango, and potentially shake his hand, in hopes that Dibango’s legend would one day be passed on to him. This is Moken, the dreamer, but with those dreams there is an understanding that they can be realized. Moken has indeed channeled some of the same magic that has made Manu Dibango Cameroon’s most significant musical icon.
The culmination of his African roots, as well as his years in America, Chapters of Life is truly a world music album. There’s a wide stylistic range far beyond his magnificent vocals, which draw from the likes of Nina Simone, Dibango, Francis Bebey, and Van Morrison, among others. In his sound, you’ll hear hints of various African styles, from afrobeat percussion and the funky energy of makossa, to the desert blues guitar sound Mali great Ali Farka Toure. There’s also clear links to the soulful jazz sound of Nina Simone, and Van Morrison’s synthesis of rock, jazz and folk. There’s also rhythmic connections to samba and rumba.
This synthesis of styles results in a record that beautiful reflects Moken’s own upbeat spirit. On songs such as “Wild Wild Ways, ” “The Man that Never Gives Up” and “Machine Man,” Moken’s voice often quivers with devastating emotional heft. But within even those moments, the rhythms and his words carry forward with joy and hope.
Possibly the finest moment of Chapters of My Life is the masterful “Ma Masse.” It’s an epic track that showcases Moken’s wide vocal range.
Moken’s vibrant music and zest for life is a needed reminder to never stop dreaming.
I was recently fortunate enough to correspond with Moken about his new album, and the moments from his life that led him on this path…
Mecca Lecca: Was there a specific moment growing up in Cameroon in which you had the realization that you wanted to be a musician?
Moken: There are some very memorable moments in my lifestyle growing up, that led to the moment when I realized that I wanted to be a musician. I was always doing things in reaction to how the music and songs I love affected me. I still remember at about age seven winning my first birthday dance competition, even with a cast on my right hand. Music was always so personal and private to me. I still remember as a teenager, I was in the back of our family house and news broke up hill that Manu Dibango was being slowly driven into town, in a small yellow taxi, waving at everyone. I took off like Speedy Gonzalez, like an excited little dog, running to have a feel and a touch of the bone that has excited and stirred his dance and rhythmic imagination. Manu Dibango was and is still the musical president of Cameroon, and for some strange reason, I knew that if I succeeded in shaking his hands amidst the dense crowd, the mantle will be some how passed on to me, and some day I will be just like him. I kept a little secret at one quiet corner of my mind to one day figure out how songs are made. And to my advantage Francis Bebey’s songs where planted in my mind like poetry in a music garden.
The specific moment came one evening, during one of my impromptu sessions with the reggae group that I had become part of every afternoon on my way to my art studio. That evening we started with our usual Bob Marley songs but it ended up being a session of only what I was making up. I realized that I was making up rhythms and melodies that sounded like four songs put together. I had asked for the guitar once or twice, and made some abstract notes, chords and melodies. And as soon as I gave our guitarist the guitar, he was asking me to show him what I just did. That moment is when I realized. The next morning I had to take a taxi to our big commercial city, called Douala, to go buy my own guitar. Luckily I had made some good money that week from my art studio.
ML: Your vocal style is truly unique. Can you give a little background on the influences that led your to this style of singing?
Moken: It stems from my early adaptation of a few selected Cameroonian, African, foreign and American musicians whose voices and songs really affected and uplifted my spirit—like brightened my inner musical sight and lifting it to higher dimensions. I selected their songs and styles which became to me my own private singing religion. It became like a mood thing or a seasonal thing. Sometimes I will be in the mood for Francis Bebey’s core touching songs, Sometimes it will be Manu Dibango’s or Fela Kuti talk singing style. Sometimes it will be Charles Lembe’s deep feeling classical makossa and traveling voice. Then sometimes it will be Nina Simone, Van Morrison or James Brown. After being very used to their singing styles and voices, through long passionate periods of singing along, I also realized early enough the ease at which I sang like all them put together—which sounded so whole to me and so like my own true self. It was like hearing the voice of my own true spirit coming out fully.
Back in Cameroon I loved and listened to a lot of Kenny Rogers, Don Williams and Jim Reeves. And also as a hopeless romantic, I was very much into Spanish romantic and salsa songs, singing along to a lot of Julio Iglesias. My love for Brazilian romantic songs was immense. I was just loaded with a lot of emotions and intrinsic feelings for music.I was named the best RockNroll dancer in my city hands down at popular Saturday night clubs. I was captivated and inspired by John Travolta’s dance moves, and sang all the songs in Grease and Saturday Night Fever word for word. So, as soon as I bought my first real western acoustic guitar, and began writing my own songs, it took my voice to some strange foreign abstract lands. I had categorized all these musicians voices and placed them in order of their range and pitch, according the their deepest baritone voice to their highest high peach and falsettos— Francis Bebey and Nat King Cole, Van Morrison and Charles Lembe, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. As for Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti, I used their influence in free styling and talk singing. So, in my singing style and technique, I start with the lowest low to the highest high as the highlight towards the end of the song. And what made it easier to master my singing style and technique is that I selected only about four musicians who I belief and felt that I sounded like.
ML: Did you have any trouble putting together a live band who had the skill and passion to help you complete your vision?
Moken: Well I have had a couple of bands and they have usually brought out different sides of my musical personality. One of the best times in Detroit was when I decided to move in and lived for six months with a bunch of drummers—kora and ngoni players from Senegal and Mali. This is the period when I wrote “Ma masse”, which is a twist of the mbalax music made popular by Yousou Ndour. I am constantly finding new ways to put bands together. My greatest joy is always about making music with others, even before I came to America. In my early twenties while still growing up in Limbe, Camerron, my art studio was like a musical round about. Most aspiring musicians came to learn my guitar technique, since I am self taught. Some came from the inner big cities, some came from the village and some older guys and professional musicians were nomads from Zaire and Nigeria. I remember deciding to spontaneously house these professional musicians from Nigeria and Zaire just to make music with them. We tapped from reggae, salsa, American and Western music. I learned a lot from the older musicians by ear, by just listening, asking a lot of questions, but I used my feelings more to make my own songs. I love salsa and Spanish guitar, Brazilian romantic rhythms and songs, Afro beats meeting American soul music and funk. So it was like a band a classroom, a motel by the road side and a studio all in one.
So, while in America, when I formed my first rock and rock/world music fusion band in Warren, Michigan, the guys were all long hair Caucasian musicians who where also very into Dave Mathews, rock’n’roll and just digging my music to death. Jim, an exceptional drummer was into Dave Mathews, Skip into high rock and roll and Spanish solo, and our long hair Timmy (a bad ass pretty boy bass player). We were all into Dave Mathews. I knew way back then that I will be the next Dave Mathews in America, but I got scared after our first studio recording, and went back to continue school. Design school was pretty demanding. I had to focus.
One of my greatest joys, living in America all these years, is discovering different music and styles. I like bluegrass music. OMG strange sounding guitars and instruments just awaking my creative mind. I like to throw all these sounds and rhythms on the musical soil of my mind, so randomly and abstractly. And then when they start coming out, they come out in whole new songs and styles, and depending also on the musician or band with who I am playing with. Like right now, one of my personal projects is to blend the blues with the popular assiko dance from my Bassa tribe.
I love the America natural landscape, I remember driving one time to route 66 area and just seating up the hill and strumming my guitar and invoking strange melodies. There are some core cities that I want to immediately start touring with my music. I just discovered through pictures the beauty of Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico. The landscape and architecture is so earthy and unique, and conjures my love for Malian architecture. I believe these cities, and the musicians and people I will meet, will be another elevation to my music. It is not easy putting bands together, but with my experience I finally have a way to be the leader, and also to be the person in the band who does all the dirty work. And I feel lucky and blessed that I usually work with musicians who are passionate and just like my music and my style
ML: How did you come to work with Blick Bassy and Jean Lamoot? And what did each bring to the sound of Chapters of My Life?
Moken: Coming to work with Blick happened instantly, almost like the power of music when it is intentionally put in one package and that package being opened by just the right person at the right moment. I should say the power of intention and vision working in unison at its best. My producer Daniel Nunga, who is also my brother, is used to my music and uniqueness. He had my demo of twenty selected songs from demos of forty songs, and was almost finalizing a record deal with a Cameroonian producer in Washington DC—who I was not happy to work with because of the initial vision me and my brother had sitting in private meetings time after time, to craft an album that is going to be traditional but very modern and futuristic, an avant-garde album that should be a modern step ahead from Baba Maal, Salif Keita, Manu Dibango, Yousou Ndour, and Ali Farka Toure. We had Angelique Kidjo and Bruno Mars as our core modern inspiration for the album. So for some spiritual reason my brother had Blick’s number and email contact, since they once invited him to come perform in the US. As soon as my brother sent him the demo, he instantly replied telling my brother that my music was groundbreaking, unique and avant-garde, advising my brother that he was ready to step in and knew just the right team to bring in. So Blick brought in Jean Lamoot, who is a Paris-based award winning engineer, and exceptional bass player who has crafted some of the best world music albums—from the likes of Ali Farka Toure and Salif Kieta just to name a few. He also brought in Pascal Danae who is also influenced by the legendary Ali Farka Toure guitar style, which is African blues meets psychedelic rock n roll. I am also heavily influenced by Ali Farka Toure’s guitar style and use that influence in surprising break down sections in some of the songs in the album, but in a very futuristic way.
We decided to build and produce the album around my vocals and guitar style, following that lead and foundation. Jean Lamoot played almost all the bass except on “The man that never give up” (played by Blick Bassy). Jean Lamoot’s bass was able to give my voice room to breathe its complete breath, by just feeling in the basic heart beat of each song, giving it is final definition. The engineering and mixing was meticulously done. Blick knew just what to do in the mixing because he was into music experimenting just like me—and all the percussion carefully selected to be very tribal but also very inventive since my acoustic guitar style is very inventive and imaginative. Luckily Blick has done a few cross over collaborations and produced, I believe, the first Cameroonian rap fusion album. When I am writing and composing my songs, I want to feel the bass, the solo guitar the percussions and almost everything that I imagine at the same time. We took months and months full of general passion to finalize every song. Blick is also from the same Bassa tribe as me, so he also knew how to preserve the traditional quality and aspect of the songs.
ML: What was it like to come from a small city in Cameroon to the large industrialized city of Detroit?
Moken: It is like a huge mind opener to the social machine of the world to me. I did not have a cultural shock but a cultural and social awakening. I learned a lot and discovered a lot of similarities, and even noticed that there were more beggars and homeless people in the streets compared to the small city I am from. Detroit is the city where you really notice the opposites in life—A tall modern building to the oldest falling deteriorating plank houses, the best schools, to the laziest person on the street feeding from the public. So, I learned just a lot in Detroit, a lot of growth in my music and contemporary art, craft and design. I fed into Motown music a lot. It opened me to all the American oldies and classic music. Growing up in Cameroon, listening to some music and voices like that of Nat king Cole during Christmas season always made me to imagine America as heaven and not a place on earth. But when I came to Detroit, known back then in the mid 90’s for its high crime rate, it donned in me that America was like heaven and hell at the same time—that to stay in heaven, you have to stay in the front door of America, and in order to not to go to hell, you have to avoid not going to the back yard of America.
ML: Your immigration experience was a struggle at times. For example “Walkin Man” is about a period in college when you struggled and lived out of your car. Was there ever a point where you thought to yourself, “I cannot survive any longer in the U.S.”?
Moken: No, never a period. My mind, even during these times, was and is always stuck seeing myself across the finish line. And the ideas and songs, and even business ideas, that come to me during this extreme hardship moments are bigger and greater than the hardship itself. These songs became like additional breath to my heartbeat and daily life. These spontaneous phrases like ”I became a machine with the heart of a human being” and “Adversity becomes a city, the university out there in the streets of the city” all became core verses and chapters of my life that were just pushing me onwards and forward. Even while living in my car I came up with a great business idea and name. Just the way I carefully arranged my design school text books in the car that I lived in by my school, gave me the idea of opening a business call “Brains and Nobles”. I am like oh, I got my own Barnes and Noble right here in my car, and trust me it is a great surprising business concept that I believe I will one day implement.
ML: Do you return home to Cameroon regularly?
Moken: Not really. That is a big part of me that I want to refill. It has to be like refilling certain part of my African spirit. For 19 years now I have only returned home once. One of the advantages is that I have focused and studied the American way of life, craft and design, backed by a solid American and Western education from the prestigious College of Creative Studies in Detroit. I have the creative ease to incorporate contemporary Western city aesthetics in my music and fashion brand, thank God is just high time now with the world wide release of Chapters of My Life for me to go refill my African and village spirit. Being here all these years, I am also able to look at African crude art and rituals with with rich contemporary clean eyes. It is like looking at and into Africa from an American window. I am the person who always see the glass half full.
ML: Are there particular aspects of the musical culture in Cameroon that you’re trying to bring to the States?
Moken: Yes, there are a lot. In Cameroon there is a song for everything, every occasion—a song to welcome a new born child, a song for marriage, a song to call on the ancestors. The musical culture comes with a dress code, and I am highly inspired by the extreme tribal, traditional and sometimes crude aspects of this dress code and rhythmic expressions. Every song, occasion and ritual having its own costume, to my modern vision, this is like having an endless fashion collection. That is why my main tag line is “where the village meets the city”. I am just still wondering why music and fashion, and the fashion runway is not making or taking the same rhythmic steps. Thank God I have always been creating and hand making things, quietly building my own brand. Thank God I am addicted to leather. I believe it will be easy for me to blend my music and my fashion brand. Sometimes I see other high end designers like Diane Von Furstenberg trying to blend music and fashion. I was just watching a video, it was almost surrealistic. She had some young models coming out of close doors and dancing. Lots of inspiration laying around to make things work, to bring visions to life
ML: As your musical debut, Chapters of My Life is a bit of a look into your own past. What does the future behold for Moken?
Moken: Chapters of My Life is a great opener to the world of endless possibilities for me. It is like the door in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves being open to the world. I have more than 500 songs in my archives, and still writing more. I am inviting the world into the many rooms of my creative store house—piles of shoe prototypes, files and files of fashion sketches and product concepts, a few manuscripts of a novel in the making. I see a lot of surprising collaborations first of all in the music making end. I am the one who still wants to have a masters degree in design. I am the one who wants to open an art school in Cameroon, linking Cameroon and America. I am the one who did not get a design job after graduating college, but worked in a shoe factory for 4 years, and conceived ideas worth two companies, and mastered how to build my own shoe machines for my mini shoe factory.
My main future goal is to merge all these know hows into a fully fledged global music and fashion brand. Yes, I am the one who will not settle with just having an atelier in Atlanta. I have so many ideas, I believe I can start a business and name it “ideas bank,” I haven’t met the woman, the equal partner and love of my life, yet—someone who will magnify and ease all my visions. My visions have been conceived privately. The imagination of a life partner and great collaborations puts a great smile on my creative face, like the sunrise of my dreams. Chapters of My Life is that door that God finally opens, that will make all this happen and possible.
ML: In addition to your love of music, you have a great passion for fashion, which is displayed in your own wonderful personal style. Do you aspire to eventually have you own fashion line?
Moken: My passion for fashion started from childhood. My greatest joy and goal is to seamlessly merge my music with my fashion brands—a distinct shoe brand and a fashion brand. I am addicted to the malleabilty of leather and have about thirty ready prototypes of shoes and leather goods in my studio. This is my future this is my joy, not for the money but for the wealthy joy of sharing all this with the world. From my first year in college, all I have been doing and planning is my brands. All that has been developing year after year, upgrades and upgrades. That’s why after graduation college I followed my creative voice rather than the conventional main stream voice to go work for another fashion brand. After my first job interview during graduation period, I said no way. I am moving to Houston to work in the biggest shoe repair factory in America. I still remember in my early twenties at my studio in Cameroon changing my loafers shoes to four different styles and colors, just to match my made up outfits. The last transformation was the loafers becoming a green sparkling pattern leather shoes. I have villager and the city going as the mother brand and the canopy for razza by moken, which is more high end high fashion avant-garde brand. If you look carefully at the cover picture of my album, I tucked in my jacket, that’s just who I am. I’ve always followed my creative instinct, from childhood and it gives me great joy to be different. My passion for fashion doesn’t permit me to settle on conventions. I love classic wears, I respect them, I love classic vintage stuff, but enjoy changing them my way.
ML: I love Manu Dibango and Francis Bebey. Who are some other greats from Cameroon that I should listen to?
Moken: You should listen to Charles Lembe. To me he is an old classic Cameroonian traditionalist. He was my Van Morrison before I discovered Astral Weeks. I really want to modernize some of Charles Lembe’s core songs in the near future to make it my way. You should try listening to Tchana Pierre. He is and old timer who really retained and maintained the influence of rumba and salsa into Cameroon music. Oh, you should also listen to Les Tetes Brulees (meaning burnt heads or hot heads in English). The period when they break out on the music scene and European scene with a charismatic guitar player by name Zanzibar (who later shortly died). I am highly influenced by what they did, very trend setting, breaking the traditional local music rules and fusing it with some punk rock. I think you must have listened to and heard of Richard Bona, he has made a good international name for himself in the Jazz.