Interview with Jacques-Greg Belobo (By David Simo )

In spite of living and working in various countries in Europe and Africa, Jacques-Greg Belobo considers Africa as his “home” and uses his travels to add a cultural mélange to his shows. Belobo, who is an opera singer of world repute has won several awards and performed in the Dresden Semper opera and the Bayreuth opera among others. Originally an autodidact, fate smiled upon him in 1997 when he had a scholarship to study in Nice, France.
His artistic journey is divided into several phases; the first being that of a young Cameroonian dreaming of being an opera singer; and he finally gets a scholarship to study opera in some of the best schools of the Occident. The second phase begins with the end of his studies, wherein Belobo has the objective of becoming a household name in opera, a task at which he again succeeds. The third phase, in which he actually is, is characterized by a yearning towards Africa, a desire to teach young talented singers who also dream about being opera singers.
As a classical artist, Belobo does not consider himself a purist because he likes to mix African sensibilities for example with Händel and Mozart, an experiment which springs from his desire to create a genre which would be a medley of all the cultures in him.
Some of his further influences include Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Bryn Terfel, and Youssou Ndour, who despite not being a classical singer, has influenced Belobo through his global outlook.

 

You live and work between Africa and Europe or other continents. What does Africa represent to you?
Africa is the "my home". Africa is the continent to which I feel strongly attached, it is my soil...


And Europe?
Europe is a host territory to me. It is a land in which I came to learn what I could not learn at home.

 

How has the fact that you have travelled and lived somewhere other than your country of origin changed your life and conception?

First of all, I firmly believe that the fact of travelling and seeing something else makes one to be greatly open-minded. There are things whose existence I could never imagine when I was in my native Cameroon and having travelled to several countries now enables me to see things differently, as well in everyday life as in my artistic life. I lean on these experiences lived in other countries to make my shows, a mixture of culture, something that the public appreciates in general.


Are there several stages in your artistic career? What marks possible breaks?
Indeed, there are several phases in my artistic path. The first phase is that of a young African, a young Cameroonian, discovering classical singing, opera, watching TV and who begins to dream of becoming an opera singer. And through what I often call, a miracle, finds the possibility to train in the West in the best schools that currently exist.
In the second phase, this young African finishes his studies and aims to make a name, to become professional and to sing in the best operas and venues in the world, what he achieves, through I do not know what luck… because he truly succeeds in appearing in the major theaters of the five continents.
The third phase is the one in which I am currently in.
At this time, my eyes and my mind have gone back to Africa...
Indeed, after reaching most of the goals I set for myself in professional life, and at the time when I began telling myself, as any good African "I am getting ready to go home to prepare for my retirement", I realized that one of the biggest missions of my career was “Home”; it is the training of all these young people who through the media have watched me evolve, and now dream as I did, to become opera singers…


How would you like to be seen?As an African artist?As a german - Cameroonian artist? Merely as an artist? Do you claim other identities?
In the early days of my career in Germany, people always took me for an American, I think, because of my looks ... I always corrected it straight away by saying that I am an "African". I must say that until today, there are not many Africans in the opera scene. Whenever a black is seen on stage, there are 90% chances that he is an American. Therefore seeing an African becomes interesting for the media and the public which was often perfect to me because the media was interested in me for the fact that I am an African, before discovering my talent …


Do you have an idea of how you are perceived as artist and as individual? Can you identify these perceptions? What impact do they have on your creation?
As an artist, I know that a lot of eyes are turned on me during all my public appearances. I am also aware that everything I say or do would be very carefully followed by the public.
Beyond this general aspect of visibility, which is valid for all artists and all publics in the world, I think my peculiarity is the fact that I am the first professional opera singer in my country and even one of the first in Black Africa. This does not only give me a particular visibility but, I also cause a kind of curiosity in the public, especially in young Africans who are interested in what I do and sometimes decide to take me as an example and follow in my footsteps ...
The impact that this has on my work is that I feel my task even heavier than that of the other singers, for example Europeans, because the future of these young people who take me as an idol depends a bit on what I do. They will also follow any path that I would take, whether good or bad. And this may influence a large part of a generation of artists… so I feel obliged to control everything I do artistically ...


What does being an artist mean to you?

I often have a good time answering, when a person who does not know me, asks me what I do in life, saying “I am a ‘Nnanga boko’” (without a fixed domicile) who spends his time travelling the world and giving pleasure to others.
So I think that being an artist is to know how to be at the disposal of the public, creating emotions of joy, sadness, love and sometimes hatred in this public … beyond that, an artist can also make an audience follow or defend a cause, using his gift to create emotions to precisely create favourable emotions for this cause... an artist may be, through his great public visibility, a message vector, that he can easily carry and deliver to the general public, or at least to the people who are interested in his Art ...

 

Do you belong to an artistic school? If yes which one?
I belong to the classical school, but not purist ... because sometimes I like to play a tune by Händel and Mozart with my African sensitivity and go to the point of distorting this tune to my taste ... my dream is also to be able release a blend of all cultures that are already in me but keeping the classic foundation, and to create another school that would perhaps be the African classic ...

When you create, what inspires you?
I am in reality no creator, I am simply a performer...
But in a certain way one can say that I create my manner of interpreting the works that I perform. In this case, what inspires me is the text I interpret. I own this text, I live it such a film actor in a role, so my interpretation is only my manner of living the story I tell in the text in question.


Where is the place of reminiscence or recollections in your life and in your creation?
I think that recollection is one of the driving forces of my work and my life. In fact, given that the kind of music that I interpret (classical music) has cautiously been kept for centuries, as opposed to the so-called African music that is oral and disappears after just a few years. The first question that I always ask myself, concerning my life, is: what will make people remember me when I am no more?
And concerning the cultural side in itself, one of the dreams I have is that I would be able to put a large part of our traditional music into partitions, so they can exist for centuries and be read and interpreted by our grandchildren...
Can you say that there is something African in your Art? What is it made of?
Something African in my Art? That I am very sure of! However I do not know exactly what it is, but all I know is that as an African, I interpret a Western classical piece with a cultural sensitivity that is different from that of a European...


Do you feel that you have obligations towards a community, towards an object, a person, a group of persons? Which one?
Absolutely, I feel that I have obligations towards my African people in general and Cameroonians in particular…
At the beginning of my career, I had given myself a goal to make my Art known to my people, the kind of music I perform; to share this wonderful experience with them, hence the numerous concerts in Africa and Cameroon in particular.
Today, I believe that this objective has been achieved and seeing the number of young people who listen to classical music and want to do the same thing as me, I felt compelled to share my knowledge with them. And it is in this perspective that the idea of building a music conservatory in Cameroon that will serve as the basis of training for the youths throughout Central Africa was born in me...

 

If you had to advocate for something, what would it be for?

This would be to preserve our cultures, our languages, because I think that a people without its language and without its culture are not one…
The world is now a global village, and we find ourselves in a situation where some people (the West) are promoting their languages and their cultures, and others (Africa) do not but simply consume what comes from other cultures and let theirs disappear … In my opinion, what is likely to happen is that African cultures and languages will disappear and we shall not have enough values of western culture in us to make us feel as part of this culture, and on the other side in Africa, we will no more be a people because what characterizes a people is its language and culture, but this will have already disappeared in us; then our children and grandchildren will wander without any cultural basis, and so at the mercy of any influence…


What would you like to change in Europe?  
Perhaps how Europeans see Africans as welfare recipients... I would like that Europe sees Africa as a partner such as it sees Asia currently and not as a child that should be sustained...


And in Africa?
The failure to promote and develop our culture to use it as a foundation, which would give us a cultural identity, to us ...


How does the current situation of your country of origin instigate you?  Are you concerned about it?
I believe that the situation of my country of origin, Cameroon, is quite stable compared to other African countries of the same level, although the country is in a phase of total change, both in the manner in which Cameroonians  and decision makers see things. I believe that in the next five years, Cameroon will have taken another structure; almost everything would have changed, the leaders, even the way Cameroonians live… In my opinion, we, Cameroonians must each bring his/her block to build the new Cameroon, if we want it to be such as we imagine it. If we do not do it, foreigners will come to do it, but in their way of seeing things and this country may not necessarily be to our liking...


And its future, how do you see it?
I imagine the future of my homeland very positive...
I believe that we have all the resources and all the brain-power needed to be a developed country by the end of this century. Our leaders should simply make the right decisions to build this future.
I particularly appreciate the “Cameroon 2035” initiative launched by the Cameroonian government. I think that we need to have more long-term projects like this one ...


Would you like to be a model? Of what?
If I rely on appraisals that I directly receive as well as those in social networks, then I guess that I am already a model for a certain number of young Africans who are interested in opera singing.
Of course it is not always easy to bear this responsibility, because these young people who see me as a model would certainly imitate everything I would do, good or bad. My responsibility is therefore to steer them on what I believe is good …


Do you have any models in the artistic field? And outside this field?

In opera singing, I had models that I followed as examples and who helped me get to where I am now. I particularly think of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Bryn Terfel… I also have another model who did not necessarily influence me by his Art, but by the way he managed his artistic career… it is Youssou Ndour. I was priviledged to do a sound technician internship in Youssou Ndour’s recording studio in Dakar, Senegal in 1996 before starting my vocal studies. What stroke me in him, was to see that an artist like him, famous around the world, lives in Senegal, invests and develops his country, while touring the world… at this point I told myself « if I become a famous artist in the world,, I would wish to be like Youssou Ndour »… and that is what I set out to do since the beginning of my career.