Roland was born in the 1960s in Douala, Cameroon’s largest
city. When he was 10 years old his parents lost their small
shop and source of livelihood in a fire. His traumatic memories
including the humiliation of seeing his parents having to beg
for help make it hard to talk to his own children about his
childhood in Cameroon. As a teenager he was angry, praying for
the day he would be able to migrate, saying he'd rather be in
jail in France than free in Cameroon.
He needed years of working hard and saving money, just for a
chance to risk his life on a flimsy fishing boat from the coast
of Nigeria with little chance of ever reaching the final destination.
One of his friends left on one of the boats. When they were
at sea, the smugglers asked the migrants for more money. His
friend couldn’t pay, so the smugglers threw him overboard.
Roland’s boat journey to Europe failed and he finally
went to Paris by plane in 1989 after years of fighting to get
a visa. After a short time in college, he got a job and met
his wife. Tchakounté juggles family life and the music
which has always been part of his life. In addition to the traditional
lullabies he had heard his aunts sing as a child, he remembers
being fond of the laments of the Peul people, the nomadic Sahel
tribes that travelled to Cameroon with their herds.
The incentive to play came when a friend gave him the guitar
presented by parents who hoped it would pacify his instincts.
In the end, it was Roland’s thirst for a meaningful existence
that playing the guitar quenched: he led his own band in New
Bell, a working-class Douala neighbourhood infamous for its
prison and high crime rate. In addition to Jimi Hendrix, whose
version of Hey Joe provided him with the three basic chords
of the blues, Roland imitated soul greats James Brown and Wilson
His first album was Bred Bouh Shuga Blues (1990). Although
he toured for many years and appeared at the Blues-sur-Seine
festival, Tchakounté still needed a clear direction for
his music. Then in 2002 he heard a John Lee Hooker recording
of 'Crawling King Snake' in the CD section of a supermarket!
That was a revelatory moment for Roland and he discovered the
real meaning of the word “blues”. The title of his
first album had the word blues in it and he was aware of B.B.
King, and others, but their music didn’t really speak
to him. And in Cameroon, 'blues'
was the generic term used for slow dance. Roland says that the
spontaneity, the apparent lack of structure, the fire and raw
energy, the honesty he was hearing changed his whole perception
example set by Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré
gave Roland the incentive to sing in his own language. Mixing
the spirit of raw blues with his bamiléké dialect
makes his songs unique.
Another turning point happened when
Roland met the first of his two current band members. Guitarist
Mick Ravassat was performing at a club where Roland happened
to go one night and he heard him
do the kind of slide guitar work Roland wanted for a new project.
The next day he hired Mick after talking with him for less than
With Ravassat on board, Roland was ready to record and Abango
was released in 2005.
Roland realised some rhythm elements were still missing and
Ravassat suggested they contact percussionist Mathias Bernheim.
Waka was released in 2008, with Mick’s delicate
blues licks and Mathias’s superb rhythmic patterns perfectly
balancing Roland’s African roots.
It could be looked upon as contrary that Roland calls himself
a bluesman when Douala is geographically
so far away from the Mississippi Delta.
It is clear that the blue note, a pure piece of Americana, was
born out of the tragic collision of three worlds brought about
by the vicious triangle of the slave trade. The spirit of the
blues echoes strongly in Africa where destiny too often rhymes
Menessen (2011) brings the talent
of the Roland Tchakounté band to a climax.
As he roams through the dark corridors of his mind, Roland cannot
keep from questioning how people can inflict so much pain and
suffering to their neighbours. Roland’s music is a holy
cry born from a desperate desire to believe in humankind. Through
fights the bitterness that often keeps him awake at night. He
proves that, regardless of his origins, he is the essence of
a blues man, because writing
songs and singing them is a way of coping with life. His
songs tell the same stories once told by blues pioneers.