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Mon July 30, 2012
Music Interviews

Bibi Tanga: 'This Is A Band That Wants To Die'

Originally published on Tue July 31, 2012 6:42 pm

Bibi Tanga is a true musical globe-trotter. Born in the Central African Republic to a family of diplomats, he spent most of his life following his father around the world. But Tanga says his journey has helped him to incorporate diverse genres into funky, multilingual songs that tackle themes well-hidden behind groovy hooks. Together with his band the Selenites, he is now touring the U.S. in support of his new album 40 Degrees of Sunshine.

Tanga says the tour is a bit of a homecoming for him. He lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., for a brief period at the end of the 1970s, but perhaps more importantly, he says, American music has always been a source of inspiration for his own.

"My parents both, when we were young, they both [played] a record of Ella Jenkins'," Tanga says. "She's an American singer — she [was] doing all those Negro songs, spiritual songs and gospel. I was raised in it because my parents used to play this record every day, every morning before we would go to school."

The Cosmic Poet

But American folk music is far from the only influence on 40 Degrees of Sunshine. Tanga says the record also draws from Afrobeat, funk, French pop and transcendentalist poetry.

"My friend, Mr. Professeur Inlassable, got a lot of books in his studio, so when we're just playing music together, we have those books — if we want to sing we just take the book," Tanga says. "I just opened a book of poems [by] Walt Whitman and [when] I was reading it, it was like I was talking. They call him the cosmic poet, because the way he writes things, it's like when you were talking — like he was inside you."

Tanga says that jam session turned into "Poet of The Soul," a slinky, funky track whose lyrics borrow from Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

"Poet of The Soul" is one of a few songs on the album that Tanga sings in English. Others are in French and some, like "Banda A Gui Koua," are in Tanga's native Sangho.

"I express myself in Sangho when I'm talking with my mother, with my brothers and sisters — it comes naturally," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART IS JUMPING")

CORNISH: ...and this is Bibi Tanga & The Selenites.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART IS JUMPING")

BIBI TANGA & THE SELENITES: (Singing) My heart is jumping. My heart is jumping. My heart is jumping, jumping, jumping out of my chest, out of my chest.

CORNISH: The group borrows its sound from all over the world, a little bit of oomph from American '70s funk, the call and response of Afrobeat and the attitude of French pop. The lead singer, Bibi Tanga, comes from, well, just about everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART IS JUMPING")

SELENITES: (Singing) I had a crush on her, my baby brown. Now, my heart is bleeding because I'm looking like the rest lately, lately in the evening.

BIBI TANGA: I was born in Central African Republic many years ago and...

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: ...and my father was a diplomat, so we used to travel a lot when I was a little kid. From zero to 10, I was traveling, so I started school in Moscow in Russia. I went to Germany, Belgium. I was also in Brooklyn in '78. So maybe I saw, you know, the beginning of hip-hop or something like that. And then went to France, and I spent all the rest of my life there.

CORNISH: So most of your teen years...

TANGA: Yeah, yeah, teen years, yeah.

CORNISH: ...are - you're in Paris.

TANGA: In Paris, yeah, of course. Paris, in the suburb, yeah.

CORNISH: So with all of those different influences, give me a sense of what's a song that you remember your parents used to play a lot or some piece of music that you still remember that was a favorite of theirs.

TANGA: My parents both, when we were young, they both a record of Ella Jenkins, which is...

CORNISH: Ella Jenkins, I'm not familiar with.

TANGA: Yeah. She's an American singer. She doing all those Negro songs, spiritual songs and Gospel, and I was raised in it because my parents used to play this record every day, every morning before we'd go to school. And there were songs like, you know...

(Singing) Well, it's O Lordy me, and it's O Lordy my. Who's going to be your man?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S GONNA BE YOUR MAN")

ELLA JENKINS: (Singing) Who's going to be your man? O Lordy me, yes, it's O Lordy my. Who's going to be your man? Who's going to shoe your pretty little foot? Who's going to glove your hand? Who's going to kiss your red ruby lips? Who's going to be your man?

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: Ella Jenkins.

CORNISH: Well, no...

TANGA: Oh, you don't know Ella Jenkins?

CORNISH: I didn't think...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...well, I know. I feel very guilty about it. But of all the influences in the album, you know, funk and French pop...

TANGA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...and a song like - we have one song "Poet of the Soul," which is actually based on a Walt Whitman poem, right?

TANGA: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: "Leaves of Grass." So Gospel was the last thing I was expecting you to say just now.

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: Yeah, yeah, no, because, you know, I'm just - I'm saying this because when you are listening to some kind of Negro spiritual or Gospel, it makes you be an open person, so you can listen to everything after this. So my best was this, and now, of course, there's a lot of mixture in what we do in life.

CORNISH: Right. This song, "Poet of the Soul," tell me a little bit about it. It's got a real funky vibe.

TANGA: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: Yeah, because, you know, I don't know this poet called Walt Whitman. We've got a lot of books in the studio. So when we just playing music together, we have those books. And if we want to sing, we just take the book. And I did this thing, you know, I just opened a book of a poem of Walt Whitman, and I was reading it. It was like I was talking, you know? They call him the cosmic poet because the way he writes things, you know, it's like when you were talking, like he was inside you, you know, just expressing...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: You open up to...

TANGA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ..."Leaves of Grass"...

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: ..and you get this song.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POET OF THE SOUL")

TANGA: (Singing) I'm the poet of the woman the same as the man. And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man. And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men. I chant a new chant of dilation and pride. I'm the poet of the soul. I'm the poet of the body. I'm the poet of the soul. I'm the poet of the body. I'm the poet of the soul.

CORNISH: Now, you sing in three languages on the album - French and English. And is it Sango?

TANGA: Yeah. You're right. Sango.

CORNISH: Tell me about that language and sort of which one do you write in.

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: Sango is my first language, and I express myself in Sango when I'm talking with my mother, with my brothers and sisters. It comes naturally. We start speaking in French, and then it turns to Sango. So it's really out of my skin, like, you know? And when I'm writing songs, it depends on what I'm talking about, you know?

CORNISH: You do it a different way each time.

TANGA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: Well, this song - one of the songs that I love is in Sango, and I think it's called "Banda A Gui Koua?"

TANGA: "A Gui Koua."

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: "A Gui Koua."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANDA A GUI KOUA")

CORNISH: That's about the point in the song where in my kitchen, I put down whatever I'm doing to just have my little dance break...

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: Cool.

CORNISH: ...the kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANDA A GUI KOUA")

CORNISH: Translate, what does the song mean?

TANGA: This is the name of a fruit because this fruit is very tasty. I really like it. It's tasty. It's spicy. It's made with vegetables and fish. And when we eat it, it has to be really hot, you know?

CORNISH: OK.

TANGA: So this is why we call it "Banda A Gui Koua." And it's about a food that I really love because, you know, I really like it, because when I'm in France and I miss my country, my mother, once she was in France, she just cooked that thing, and I'm eating it. It's just like I'm transported to my country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANDA A GUI KOUA")

CORNISH: And you've been touring many countries in Africa...

TANGA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...over the last few months. And is this a song that gets a lot of response from the crowd, or do people know you more for your kind of funk and French kind of pop sound?

TANGA: Both sides. But this song made them go crazy, you know? People were jumping in the crowd. This was really "Banda A Gui Koua," everybody jump up. They say, OK, "Banda A Gui Koua."

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Yeah. Well, it had that effect on me, so I believe it.

(LAUGHTER)

TANGA: I was really happy.

CORNISH: Well, Bibi Tanga, thank you so much for talking to us about the album.

TANGA: I'm talking too much. Thank you so much.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: There's never, never enough for radio. We love it.

TANGA: Thank you. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANDA A GUI KOUA")

CORNISH: Bibi Tanga, his new album is called "40 Degrees of Sunshine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANDA A GUI KOUA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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