Most people are no stranger to hardship of some sort and it’s always uplifting when a tale of overcoming difficulties can be told. Such is the case with Cameroonian musician Moken, who left Africa to attend design school in the U.S. where he had to live in his car to make ends meet.
With incredible tenacity, Moken has managed to turn his life around and is now busying himself with design work (watch for his line of shoes) and an intriguing new album born out of his hard times called Chapters of My Life. The record is an amalgam of soul, psychedelia, Afrobeat and Cameroonian sounds with vocals from Moken that instantly grab the listener with their voice-of-God quality.
Chapters of My Life drops on April 6 via Bantu Records, and on that date Moken will become a legitimate international star; we sent him a few questions by email so that we all might get to know him a little by then. Moken’s commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.
AXS: You loved music and dance as a child in Cameroon. Can you share with us your memories of the day that you realized that you were also destined to be a performer?
Moken: The day was a quiet evening under that shaded plum tree where the only noise that interrupted our makeshift Bob Marley impromptu band was the sound of big trucks hauling out sand, up and down the hill above us. Our practice session that evening became the usual private concert; guys were used to me interjecting the Bob Marley songs into my own “Mokenistic” ways. I remember suddenly interrupting our guitarist, asking him to hand me the guitar. The sound and rhythm I was making sounded like four songs put together. I abstractly started strumming the guitar, trying to rhythmically and melodically capture the four songs to make it one. That moment was so intense, so attentive, almost like we were all being possessed and captured by a musical holy spirit. After a while the song was finally captured and as I handed the guitar back to our guitarist, his eyes lit up, busy asking me to show him step by step what I had just created on the guitar. And that was the “aha” moment when I realized that I was destined to be a performer and musician. A big bell rang in my mind, almost louder than the big trucks going up the hill above us. I made up my mind and decided to buy my own guitar. And first thing when I woke up in the morning the next day, I was a rushing to the bus station heading for Douala, our commercial city, like somebody rushing to buy the first ticket into heaven. I bought my first guitar and here we are today. I am now taking a far gaze into the future, just as my pose on the album cover of Chapters of My Life.
AXS: Now that you have an album out, do you still have time to work in fashion design? Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?
M: I have always had time to work in fashion. My love for hand-making my own fashion is what started my love for making music. Without one I don’t feel complete. It is like having a song without having the instrument to play that song. To me every outfit or pair of shoes sets the mood for a song or a dance. In my early twenties I’d alter my clothing with my mother’s old Singer hand sewing machine, just to get ready to show off and express myself, mostly at the Saturday night dance clubs. I never worked in fashion design but since my first year in design school I have always been working and building my fashion brands. My two major brands are “Razza by Moken” and “Villager and the City.” I only had one interview during my final year in design school at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. Right after the interview I came back and was upgrading my brands rather than my job search portfolio. So what I am working on right now is the last upgraded version of my first hand-made shoes, which I made while living in my car by the school and that ended up in the school catalog. I am the kind of person who doesn’t throw away valuable sketches or any valuable prototype in progress. It is the same way my songs have been built. So right now I am also working on introducing the first collection of my third brand, “Leather Refinery,” which I created after moving to Houston five years ago and while working in the biggest shoe re-crafting company in the world. The brand is inspired by my love for collecting recycled leather. I will be introducing the first key pieces from each of the three brands, about seven pieces total. Right now I am finishing the first pair of shoes, from the upgraded version of my first hand-made shoes. It is a shoe series I love a lot called the Mok shoe. The first pair I will be wearing in my premiering video of the song “Wild Wild Ways.”
AXS: One of the highlights of Chapters of My Life is the bouncy and psychedelic “I’ve Got a Bone to Grind with Einstein.” Can you explain the song’s inspiration, and amusing lines like “He stole my mustache”?
M: My late dad had a very dark curly Mark Twain-like mustache. He was a quiet and soft spoken intellectual and well-dressed gentleman who read a lot of good books. He had a library of special “brain picking” and imaginative books where I had discovered my first novels by Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” For some serious but funny childish reason, I was fascinated by Mark Twain’s mustache and I was also fascinated by the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. To tell you the truth I enjoyed living and growing up with a childish playful imagination as if I was Tom Sawyer. I was just a little rascal growing up in the neighborhood climbing mango trees late at night just to pluck the ripest mango and then laugh at anyone during the day wondering what happened to the ripe mangos dancing under the sunlight on the tree branches. When I came to America all of a sudden I discovered the magnitude of Einstein’s works; his discoveries, writings on science, metaphysics and most of all his quotes. But because I was caught up in all of his works it never dawned on me how strikingly he had the same mustache and curly hair as Mark Twain. My guitar was by my side that particular day, see luckily I usually have my guitar by me, like a soldier in an unpredictable war front. The image of Mark Twain and his unique blond curly hair and curly mustache has always stuck in my subconscious mind and my imagination. So that evening I was reading a very important Einstein article and then as I checked my collection of Einstein quotes; I wanted to compare if Einstein was smarter than Mark Twain. For some reason I started taking Mark Twain’s side, so I also wanted to see how smart I was to write a smart song but with a comic twist. The first thing that came to my mind at this point was the title of the song “A Bone to Grind with Einstein.” I took sides with Mark Twain and decided to accuse Einstein that he stole Mark Twain’s mustache and curly hair and that he is picking on Twain’s brain and should not think that he is any smarter than him. That’s why the song is so simple and just centered around “He stole my look, he stole my mustache” and the funny line “He took my hair and make his curly-curly and took my mustache and make his wavy-wavy.” I am a practical joker anyway.
AXS: You had some really rough times while you were attending school in Detroit. Can you tell us about having to live in your car, and how you got out of that situation?
M: I had just struggled to go back to college after I had slipped off school for two years and started my first major rock ‘n’ roll band with a bunch of very talented rock ‘n’ roll-looking Caucasians in Warren, Michigan. Jimmy the drummer was very much into Dave Matthews just like myself. Scot the pretty boy had long hair and his bass playing was just phenomenal, and Skip our solo guitarist was so good and could sound like Carlos Santana. We were so good, Skip even suggested we call our band “Moken and the White Africans.” They dug my songs and the music we were cooking together. We became so good and during our first studio recording session at a popular Detroit recording studio call the Disc Detroit I panicked because of their demands on me. We were practicing almost three times a week and they were pressing me to drop college, saying Moken we’re gonna make it big, don’t worry. I had to decide whether to go back to school and have a degree since my main purpose for coming to America was to attend design school. Cameroon, my country, has no design school, so I moved to Atlanta and had to work my knuckles and arms off, doing all types of art Jobs, from signage to murals. I had saved my last $5000 to come pay my back school fees, so when I made it back to Detroit and went to pay my fees it was short by $1000 and I had to sell all my belongings. My car, thank God an Audi 100S, became my bed, my home, my school library, my music studio and art studio. My guitar sat all the time on my driver’s seat like my only brother and my savior. The songs I created were the food that fed my stomach, my spirit and my soul. “Walking Man” was written one time when my car had broken down on me and I had to walk back miles and miles to school. “Machine Man” was also written during this time, a day that I felt I had become a machine but with the heart of a human being. This was my toughest time in Detroit but the time I wrote my best songs for the album, and the car ended up being featured in the school catalog. I came up with a business name and concept called “Brains and Norble,” inspired by the way I arranged my precious design text books at the back of my car seat. My car was always parked there by the school park, behind other student’s cars, but they never knew that it was my home. I would rush back and forth, looking neat and even writing exams together with everybody, but with an empty stomach and a mind full of ideas and songs and belief in my future. What finally got me out of the situation was when I landed a $1400 faux-finish bathroom decoration contract. The upscale home owner and his wife were so happy after I finished that they gave me an extra $100 and also a vintage cupboard, a TV and their old wooden bed frames. That weekend I rented a nice historical apartment on Trumbull St. in Detroit and got comfortable. I felt like Lazarus risen from the grave!
AXS: You now play a bunch of instruments besides the guitar. What is the next instrument you’d like to learn and incorporate into your music?
M: OMG I can’t wait to get my long fingers on a cello! After the release party I am shopping for a vintage used cello. I want to incorporate it so bad with my music; the classical nature of what the cello will invoke will do wonders to my traditional crude village spirit. I am an avant-gardist and know in my spirit of spirits that the sounds that I will create with the cello will take my voice traveling to new unseen, imaginary, melodic and rhythmic islands. I like the fact that it is a very playful instrument that leans by the neck and can be used simultaneously as a conga or njembe. I like what 2 Cellos are doing. I have seen their work and I am very inspired by their musical innovations and unlimited interpretations of different genres of music. When I am creating music I let my emotion and imagination rhythmically and melodically take off, without any conventional restrictions. I believe that if you can feel an instrument, you can also play it.
AXS: Have you been back to Cameroon since you emigrated? Will you be able to go and perform Chapters of My Life there?
M: This is a great question because although the music of Chapters of My Life is dedicated to the memory of my late mother Helen Nunga, it is also dedicated as a table trophy to the City of Victoria, now called Limbe, and that is stated in the album’s acknowledgments. To me Chapters of My Life is not only my victory but that of a small town that has never had his own son of the soil become an international superstar. I can confidently say “superstar” because as we speak this album is already making giant steps across continents. My story and the excitement about my unique voice and vocal range and songs in the album is going to be aired next Thursday on CBC’s Metro Morning radio show in Toronto, Canada. This is a great victory for me and my brother Daniel Nunga who is also my producer and who started the record label Bantu Records because he was moved by my songs.The only time I went back to Cameroon was in 2002 when we were taking our late mother back home after her passing. So going to perform the album will be a carefully-planned trip. The album is intended for the world, but Cameroon is my roots, and I can’t wait to go refill my African and village spirit. There is one song on the album called “Jerusalem” which is actually a gift to my tribe the Bassa tribe. The song is a modern twist of our traditional dance the “assiko” and “dihongo.” The song captures our history and origin and calls for peace, unity and love, so it is my duty as an artist and a Cameroonian to prepare a serious trip to go and perform Chapters of My Life back home, and I believe that this album will bring international pride to my country.