April 7, 1957 – March 16, 2014
Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger, the legendary singer and pro-democracy activist from Cameroon who had been living in Buffalo since he was granted political asylum in the U.S. in 2012, died March 16 in Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He was 56.
Better known as Lapiro de Mbanga, he was arrested in 2008 for a song he wrote that criticized longtime Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s push to change the constitutional limits on his term in office.
The song, “Constipated Constitution,” contained the lyric, “the pacho (old man) is daya (tired) and has outlived his usefulness.” Banned by the government, it became the anthem of street protesters.
Convicted despite his denial that he incited protesters to riot, he nearly died of typhoid fever in the West African nation’s notoriously harsh New Bell Prison. After an international campaign was held to demand his release, he was freed in 2011, one day before the official end of his sentence.
While in prison in 2009, he was awarded the Freedom to Create Prize.
“That song about the constitution was certainly not my first protest number,” he told a Dutch interviewer by phone from prison in 2010. “I was born as a fighter. But I’m not fighting for myself. Look at my imprisonment through the lens of a people who want their freedom.”
Born in Mbanga, just northwest of Douala, the commercial capital of Cameroon, he spent several years in self-imposed exile in neighboring Gabon and Nigeria, where he made records before returning to his home country in 1985. He scored a big hit the following year with a song titled “Pas Argent No Love.”
He sang and rapped in Pidgin – a mixture of English, French and local languages. He was considered Cameroon’s answer to Nigerian Afrobeat star Fela Kuti.
Nicknamed “Ndinga Man” (the guitar man), he wrote a series of popular dance songs with satirical lyrics about conditions there. He became a folk hero and was constantly subjected to censorship by the government.
In the late 1980s, he owned a large nightclub on the outskirts of Douala, where he performed with his orchestra and hosted other notable West African musicians. The club was burned during the nation’s political uprisings in 1991.
After he was freed from prison, he performed in Europe and North America in the summer of 2011. Experiencing threats and harassment in Cameroon, he left in September 2012 with his wife and three children, and came to Buffalo at the invitation of a longtime acquaintance here.
He was a featured speaker at the 2013 Freedom Forum in Oslo, Norway. Plans to assemble a band and perform were interrupted by his illness.
He wrote a book about his imprisonment, which is has been published in French and is awaiting publication in English.
Survivors include his wife, Louisette Noukeu; his children; brothers and sisters.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, 200 St. Gregory Court at Maple Road, Amherst. A memorial concert is planned later this year in Washington, D.C.