Conscientious heir to ancestral wisdom
A veteran of Quebec’s African music scene, Atna Njock has spent the past three decades transporting listeners to his world.
The artist, who recently received a CALQ grant to make his fifth album, has earned renown with a complex, inventive repertoire, combining ancestral Cameroonian traditions with different genres of music.
Few people can claim to have come into the world with innate knowledge. Even fewer have a gift for an ancestral tradition, like tonal language. For Atna Njock, alias Zekuhl, it is all quite natural.
“I was born with it; it’s in my genes,” says the musician in a phone interview.
The grandson of a traditional chief, Zekuhl grew up steeped in Bantu music, particularly from Central Africa. Tonal language, a form of expression based on rhythmic codes, with each phrase having its own rhythm and melody, has always been part of him.
“You could compare this ancestral wisdom to Morse code, but instead of words, it’s sounds,” he says.
Prompted by his parents to study in Québec at the beginning of the 1990s – he had his Canadian citizenship because he was born in Québec during his father’s professional internship – the multi-instrumentalist looked for any excuse not to leave his country.
“It was presented to me as a fait accompli,” he says. “I was handed my passport, the contact information for a friend of my parents. […] They bought me a ticket, and three days later I was on the plane.”
Barely knowing how to use a pay phone when he arrived at the airport, he found the shock of his first steps on Québec soil brutal. Fortunately, he had slipped a few African instruments into his luggage and soon found success in music.
While he was studying electrical engineering at Collège Lionel-Groulx in Sainte-Thérèse, a teacher made him realize that his jam sessions with other students were what counted. One year later, the eponymous album from Zekuhl dropped. Three other releases have followed since then, along with dozens of shows, confirming the public’s appetite for the artist’s hybrid work.
“My grandfather told me: Not all of our traditions are essential. Take the best of ancestral traditions and the best of modernity and put them together,” Atna says, sharing his thinking when asked about his musical and cultural identities.
His next project, with the working title of Tonphonies, for which he was awarded a CALQ grant, will be another encounter between distinct musical worlds. He found inspiration during his most recent trip to Cameroon. “My father asked me what it would be like to hear African Bantu sounds in a symphony orchestration,” he says.
His grant will enable him to work with a small ensemble of nine musicians, with whom he is currently almost surgically transposing Bantu melodies to the esthetic of each instrument.
“The rhythm of each instrument, the melody, and the position of each sound in time are studied so that they correspond to the way the story is told in the tonal language and represent it in the current world of sound,” says Atna.
The artist is eager for a stage version of his project, with a first EP that should be released at the end of 2021.
“My dream is one day to play with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra,” he says.
This desire to hit the stage is even more pronounced given that his most recent album, Tòòdana, released in fall 2019, did not find an audience because of the pandemic. And yet, its sustained groove and danceable rhythms will lift listeners out of any funk.
While the crisis has somewhat slowed the promotion of Tonphonies, Atna sees the reboot of cultural activities with a great deal of optimism. Between teaching, cultural mediation, collaborations, and performing arts, his motivation is the same: to share and pass down for posterity the tradition of tonal language.Learn more
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