Emile was born on September 5. He prefers not to reveal the year to any but his closest friends, but he will say that he was born in the city of Dschang, Cameroon, to Sobtedong Stanislas and Ngamliya Ruth. His father was from the village of Bafou, and his mother was from Djimum (Foumban). Emile was the third child, coming along after Marie Louise Dongmo and Sobtedong Jean Marie. Rebel activities in pre-Independence Cameroon interfered with Emile’s formal schooling, but he learned armed and unarmed self-defense while traveling with his father, a military officer who fought in the French Army during World War II. Emile enjoyed entertaining and being the center of attention from a young age. During a concert for the independence of Cameroon, he jumped on stage, grabbed the nearest percussion instrument, and started to play with the band. The crowd screamed, and Emile climbed on everything on that stage that would hold him.
He was five.
The family, which now included younger sisters Jeannette Magnijio and Celestine Nguenssi, moved to Bafou when Emile’s father retired from the army. Emile was able to attend school full time at the Ecole Principale Groupe 2. He participated in karate, acrobatics, and boxing. He also had a Juju band and a percussion band, which earned Emile some money and made him popular around town. His friends included Towo Marcel, Kouam Martin, Kemedjo Bonaventure, Fopa Moise, Timini Maurice, Timoleon, and Jean Noel de Jeuk.
After six years, Emile attended Grand College de la Menoua but quickly transferred to Centre de Jeunesse de New Bell in Douala to study electrical engineering. He passed the exam to enroll in the prestigious College de la Salle de Douala one year later. It was at this 4-year Canadian missionary college that Emile first studied music seriously. Thanks to Brother Auguste, Emile had the chance to touch all kinds of instruments after years of watching and listening to musicians from the windows of bars. He was determined to become a famous musician himself one day.
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In 1972, all the men playing in the College de la Salle orchestra graduated. There were some big shoes to fill – one of those musicians was Toto Guillaume, who went on to become a distinguished guitarist and major influence in Makossa. Emile auditioned for a slot as a drummer. He had no formal training, but he could play anything after hearing it just once. It was in his blood. Emile was made the new chef d’orchestre of the college. He switched to the bass and conducted his own auditions to fill the other positions. Within three months Emile prepared them for their first concert, which was well received by the faculty. He knew nothing about their instruments and was still playing by ear himself. He did manage to have his first saxophone lesson with another of the departing players, Roger Kom, on the day Roger left the country. After that, Emile was on his own.
When it’s in the blood, it’s in the blood.
Emile started listening to Manu Dibango and King Curtis while attending College de la Salle. That's also when he met his future collaborator Eugene Victor Dooh Belly, better known to Zangalewa fans as Guy Dooh or "Big Bèlè." In 1976, Emile and the orchestra were featured on the front page of the Cameroon Tribune playing Manu Dibango’s Mbolo Mbolo at Stade Akwa in Douala. After graduation, Emile played alto sax with Gustave Yowa at the Masion du Combattant along with his friends Mistic Djim and Mbougnem Emma. Fans came from all around the city to see them. It was here that Emile met his other key collaborator, a drummer and gendarme named Jean-Paul Zé Bella.
A few months later Emile and his friends Mistic and Emma travelled abroad to gain experience. His adventures included a car ride with $50 in his pocket from Yaounde north to Ngaoundere and Garoua, across into Nigeria, and then southwest to Lagos by way of Mubi, Jos, and Kaduna. He soon after rushed by car to Satel Studio in Benin, only to find that it was closed due to a nation-wide state of emergency. He continued west, first to Togo, then to Ghana. Emile wanted to learn African jazz, and he played in several local bands in Ghana until he fell ill and was forced to return to Lagos. Out of money, a Nigerian friend he knew from Cameroon bought Emile a ticket back to Douala.
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Emile played with the “Negro Styl” band of Nelle Eyoum, a founder of modern Makossa. Among his bandmates was Sadey Firmin, the late Egide Sadey, and Ngallé Jojo. Emile’s alto sax playing was recorded for the very first time on Ngallé’s hit song, “Alliance.” He recorded his first 45 with his sister Marie Louise. Emile then passed through a series of bands, some with old friends such as Levis Clan and Mistic Djim. He played in bars and night clubs like Le Pauvre and The Nite Spot, which attracted the elite of the city. At the Moulin Rouge he played with Guy Dooh, who was then on drums. And it was at the Moulin Rouge that he was approached by two army officers who suggested that he'd be perfect for the Presidential Guard.
Emile had other ideas. Based on his father’s experience, he was not keen to pursue a military career. But the soldiers convinced him that he wouldn't face combat, and within a month Emile, Dooh, and other friends from across the country were among 30 young men who found themselves in Yaounde for induction.