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Bibi Tanga: Where Afropop Meets Walt Whitman

Bibi Tanga (center) has embarked on a tour of the US with his band, The Selenites. Their new album <em>40 Degrees of Sunshine</em> came out July 10.
Bibi Tanga (center) has embarked on a tour of the US with his band, The Selenites. Their new album <em>40 Degrees of Sunshine</em> came out July 10.

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.

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