Njacko Backo creates joyful African-influenced “world music” that instantly evokes images of sun-drenched music festivals, ecstatically-dancing crowds and the spirit of peace, love and social harmony found within.
A master of the kalimba of his native Cameroon, Njacko seamlessly blends the rhythms, melodies and vocal styles of his homeland with the most euphoric and blissful sounds from the world over. The jubilant steel pan of calypso, the droning Sitar of South Asian ragas, the uplifting banjo of old-time country, and the soaring and contemplative Uilleann pipes of Irish music all make appearances on his new album, Ici bas rien n’est impossible (Here below, nothing is impossible). Meditative flute, blistering saxophone, shimmering Wurlitzer, and rip-roaring fiddle parts are also woven into the mix. The result is a veritable world party – a high-energy musical celebration of the interconnectedness of cultures.
From his early days as a marginalized youth in the village of Bazou, Njacko has risen above circumstance to become a living testament to the transformative power of music; an award-winning musician, a beloved music al educator; an evangelist for the idea that wealth is to be found in community, not in worldly possessions; and a generous philanthropist who is currently rebuilding a school in the very same town that once treated him as an outcast.
Born into a musical family in a village as rural and as untouched by modern technology as the one in the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, Njacko, like all children there, was learning to build and play instruments by the age of three – by watching the adults do it. He and some friends had a group that performed around nearby villages.
But when Njacko was just seven, his parents “divorced,” a scandalous act by the regional moral standards of the time. He was shunned by other children and neglected by his parents. He went to live with his grandmother, who encouraged his love of music, introducing him to village elders who taught him to play the hand drum (toumkak), kalimba (thumb piano), and African harp (zaa koua).
Possessed of a passionate curiosity about the world beyond his village, Njacko left Cameroon at age 17 and began life as an itinerant musician in West Africa, immersing himself in the vibrant live music scene in the restaurants and clubs of Nigeria, Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast and soaking up the influences of the entire region. At 21, he travelled to Europe, where he tapped into the small network of African musicians in Paris who, in the late 70s and early 80s, were in the early stages of launching what would become a massive world music movement. He distinguished himself in that drum-centric milieu by focusing on what is now his signature instrument: the kalimba. He would go on to perform with acts such as Africa Salimata (creation of Salimata Diabaté of The National Ballet of Guinea), Ernest Cissé, Sosoba, and Vinjama, and choreograph for Mioso Mika of Surinam.
After 11 years in France, Germany and the Netherlands – where he recorded his first two independent albums – Njacko immigrated to Canada, where he has carved out a multi-faceted career as a band-leader, dancer, story-teller, author, and educator.
His boundary-smashing global music ensemble, Kalimba Kalimba, won the 1999 Fiati Memorial Award for Best Traditional Performance from the Toronto-based group Music Africa. Njacko also won first prize in the 17th Annual Billboard World Song Contest for his song Afrique Réveille Toi. And his song Mama Oh received honourable mentions from both the 2006 International Songwriting Competition (world music category) and the 15th Annual Billboard World Song Contest. Njacko’s most recent album Ici Bas, Rien N’est Impossible was nominated for a 2013 Canadian Folk Music Award (World Group of the Year).
Njacko has released a total of 10 albums – seven with Kalimba Kalimba – and performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Louisiana Folk Festival (Lafayette, LA) and the Houston International Jazz Festival (Houston, TX), among countless other events. He has also composed music for films including To Walk with Lions, Born Free, and Spirit in the Tree.
As an educator, Njacko has released three instructional African drumming CDs and an instructional DVD. He has given guest lectures at York University, the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo. He teaches music to young people through Mariposa in the Schools, and he’s even written a popular children’s book, Baki and the Magic Egg, and is working on a follow up!
In addition, Njacko has performed fundraising concerts for countless charities and non-profits, including Amnesty International, Foster Parents Plan, The Stephen Lewis Foundation, and The David Suzuki Foundation. Since 2010, he and his wife, Valery Woloshyn and their friends have also been raising money to rebuild the École St. Albert Le Grand in Bazou, Cameroon.
When Njacko first left that tiny village in the 1970s, he believed the world was small enough that he would be able to swim to Europe from Senegal. Today, though he still has to travel by plane to Europe, he can take credit, at least figuratively, for bringing the countries of the world a lot closer together. His infectiously joyful music and open-hearted performances leave audience-members of all backgrounds dancing in a spirit of togetherness.