How 15 seconds of an Apple ad changed Blick Bassy’s life

(CNN)It’s only 15 seconds of music, featuring a delicate jingle of banjo and guitar topped with a honeyed song in the dialect of Bassa. Yet it’s 15 seconds that changed everything for Blick Bassy, the Cameroonian musician whose song “Kiki” was chosen for Apple’s iPhone 6 advertising campaign, airing globally in June.

Bassy has been making music for 20 years, but the hit — from his third album, “Ako,” released earlier this year — has propelled him onto the international music scene — he’s in concert in London this weekend, a U.S. tour is in the pipeline, while the album has been lapped up by French radio.

“I was happy (about the Apple deal) of course, but it’s not really about the money,” says Bassy. “A friend of mine living in the U.S. called me and said, ‘I was watching NBA and during the adverts I heard your song in Bassa! I told my wife, you won’t believe it, I’m hearing Bassa on TV in the U.S!'”

Chance discovery

Quite a surprise for a record that was never intended for release. In March 2014, Bassy was in a studio recording tracks in homage to the American blues legend Skip James, when the owner of French label No Format heard his band’s rare blend of cello, trombone and soft falsetto and signed him straight away. He sent the album to an advertising agency that supplies brands with music, and the rest as they say, is history.

“I think with Ako, I’m going to be more famous in France than with the two other albums,” says Bassy, referring to 2009’s “Leman” and 2011’s “Hongo Calling” records. “It’s good for Apple too,” he continues, “because these brands need music to sell their products!”

Early start

The recent rise to fame marks a long journey for 40 year-old Bassy, who says he started singing at just three years old. One of 21 children to a police chief father, Bassy grew up in a village called Mintaba in central Cameroon. His dad built a church where his mother taught the kora, while Bassy and his siblings sang.

“All the kids had to sing every Sunday to draw in people from the neighboring villages,” he remembers. “Every day we woke up at 5am to pray and to rehearse the songs. We had no choice!”

This early musical rigor help Bassy to hone his versatile musical talents — apart from singing, he also plays the banjo, guitar, percussion and bass. But following his star wasn’t straightforward.

“My father wanted me to go to France, U.S. or Japan to study,” he explains. “I told him I wouldn’t go anywhere, I’d stay in Cameroon and do my music with my friends. He said that the devil was in me and called a priest to remove it,” he laughs. “I was the only guy who didn’t want to go to Europe — he thought I was crazy.”

A turning point

Determined, Bassy quit “everything” and formed a band called Macase, which toured Cameroon and became famous. In 2001, it won the Prix Elysse Musique du Monde award from French radio station RFI. Yet after 10 years performing at home, Europe began calling.

“For the others in the band, it was difficult to leave a country where we were already famous and start again as no one. I was looking for an ambitious career in music, so I decided to move on,” he says. “The internet wasn’t what it was today, and we don’t really have professional music companies in Cameroon.”

Relocating to Paris, Bassy began playing in small clubs — eventually leading to the deal that spawned his first two albums. He now lives in a rural village in northern France, where he enjoys a more tranquil life, closer to his native Cameroon. But his move to Europe also marked a turning point in his identity.

“When I moved to Paris, I understood where I was coming from. Before that, I wasn’t aware how Cameroonian I was! I realized our tradition and languages make me completely different. At that moment, I decided to try to use my music to explain to people about my continent and its problems.”

‘Ambassador for Bassa’

Bassy’s latest offering, “Ako,” speaks of home and separation — but more important to him is the language he is singing in. He says he is a passionate “ambassador for Bassa.”

“We’re not like Senegal where Wolof is spoken by everyone, or Bambara in Mali,” he explains. “In Cameroon we have 260 different languages and in a few years most of them will have disappeared. Language is still the link between us and our heritage — if I don’t speak Bassa, my grandfather can’t teach me what he knows.”

“The fact that Apple chose a song in Bassa is going to help young artists from Africa to accept what and who they are. It might also help people in Cameroon start teaching more of those languages.”

Yet, this isn’t the only topic Bassy is shouting about. In 2014 he wrote a children’s book about environmental issues in Africa, Kwem Kwem, which became a musical he has toured around France. Now he is writing a novel about immigration — a familiar issue after his own ordeal of forced visits to Cameroon every three months while waiting for his French residency. At one point he got stuck there, leaving his gigs in Paris abandoned.

“All those guys have died in the sea just because they wanted to come to the European paradise,” he says. “A human born somewhere in this world doesn’t have the same chances as another one born in Paris, England or the U.S. We don’t have the same chances at the beginning.”

He’s right. This new star of African music has a platform and he intends to use it.

CNN | African Voices

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