Laetitia Tamko, also known as Vagabon, is a force to be reckoned with.
Laetitia Tamko is accustomed to existing in a tumultuous world. After moving from Cameroon to New York and studying engineering in college, Tamko started making music under the name Vagabon. Her latest release, Infinite Worlds, deals with the feeling of solidarity, searching for a home, and discomfort. Now a force to be reckoned with, Vagabon will perform at Gasa Gasa on Saturday, October 7.
When Tamko was 14, she moved from Cameroon to New York and her parents bought her a Fender guitar. Although she had always been interested in making music and taught herself to play guitar using instructional tapes, she never pursued a career as a musician. Instead, Tamko studied at Grove College of Engineering without any real ambition to become an engineer. After posting a few songs on Bandcamp, the DIY music scene in New York found her. Tamko was invited to play at the NYC underground music venue Silent Barn, where the small indie rock stage opened her up to the different side of the music industry, one that admired her tenacious tenor voice and out-of-the-box finger picking style.
Tamko’s upbringing and academic endeavors are key to understanding her style. Vagabon’s sound ranges from folks to punk, psychedelic to blues. “Where I grew up, there was a lot of African tribe and tradition music, folk music, and people using pots and pans for drums,” she says. “It seeped into me. My guitar playing, for example. I use a thumb to play the bass notes which is traditional in African music.”
This finger picking technique can be heard full force on “Cleaning House,” which asks, “What about them scares you so much? My standing there threatens your standing, too.” The song builds into the harrowing lyrics, “If I lived the way you did, I wouldn’t be here today. You only get to say these words because we enabled it.” Then the drums erupt. The technical calculation of the symbol is tangible, and the lyrics cuts deep. In an interview with Nylon last February, Tamko recalled the origin of these lyrics. “You can feel content in a place and still feel like you don’t belong there,” she said. The rise and fall of this track mirrors the theme of emotional unease that Tamko is all too familiar with.
Like the music industry, engineering is a field dominated by men. “The two things that I’ve had as careers are two things where women are not highly recognized,” Tamko says. “Engineering is a boys' game. Less than half of the women in my class graduated with me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of the culture, down to the professors telling you, If you don’t know the answer, talk to Gene or John or something. It comes down to the assumption that women are less equipped to be engineers than men. Not only do you have to do the difficult academics of it, but you have to keep telling yourself that you can when even the professors are laughing at you.”
Being told time and again that you are lesser is agonizing. Tamko echoes this sentiment in her song “The Embers,” which she released on her first EP under the title “Sharks.” Tamko compares herself to a small fish in a pond full of sharks. “The songs comes from a feeling of solitude” she says. “I felt like everyone was making moves that I was unable to make or that I felt like I couldn’t make. Feeling really stagnant, like I couldn’t grow in the way that others were.” In the original recording, the song is hesitant and abstract. On “The Embers,” Tamko’s emotional strength is realized.
“I’m definitely not as wary of being outnumbered,” she says. “I’m used to it.”
Rock is now ruled by woman according to The New York Times, but being black, Tamko continues to be an anomaly. “Because I am who I am, people want to take me into [politics], and I don’t want to be tacked into that box,” she says. “I am a musician. I’m a musician with politics like any other musician with opinions on the world and mine are particular to my experience. I don’t feel like I need to talk about my politics explicitly when I’m asked about it. I talk about it when it’s appropriate and more importantly, I do it. I’m just a person sharing their music, not their entire intellectual property.”
Although she has dealt with misogyny, Tamko does not want to give any more attention to those who box her in than they already get. “There’s misogyny everywhere,” she says. “That’s the world we live in. Our president is horrible. These things exist and it’s inherent, but I’m still standing and so many women are still standing so I won’t talk about misogyny because it’s the thing that every woman’s experienced.”
“Instead of giving attention to that, I want to talk about all the ways that I am resilient.”
Tamko’s resilience is palpable. It is there in the way that she speaks about producing her music with the focus of a scientist. It can be heard in her booming vocals. It can be read in her thoughtful, eye-opening lyrics. Through the discomfort, Tamko makes one thing clear in the way she lives and makes her music. We can persevere.