For Africans by Africans

For Africans by Africans For Africans by Africans
by Struan Douglas

The music industry in South Africa is crazy. We are infused with this incredible inferiority complex, where local is not cool or clever, it is ‘lekker’. So what, so is ice-cream, bubble-gum and Eskimo pie. Local music has hardly been endowed with any integrity or value, largely as a result of the media and record industry. Why should EMI bother with local music, when all they have to do is sell 2pac? Gallo concentrates on all those silly little singing blonde girls radio 5 loves so much and no fault of Sheer sound but they sell more of those cheesy international dance compilations than their jazz albums. The industry runs on the simple unimaginative economic conundrum of profit maximization – getting the product out to the most people with the least cost and risk.

But, there is an African city with an African reality and an African music business, making a more vivid and still a lucrative economic statement, illustrating that an authentic and cultured musical palette is not only infinitely desirable and important but successful too. And that is the fantastic city of Dakar in Senegal.

“This music belongs much more to the people than anyone else – because it comes from there culture, it is part of them,” said Baaba Maal, whilst on tour raising awareness for a young polio victim in the tiny way out village of Mboro in the North.

And when the village was thrust into darkness to run sufficient power for the sound on stage – nothing more than a collection of high jump mats and hundred gallon drums on a random tract of desert – and when the gig only got underway after 3am on that cold desert morning, the importance of culture became absolutely lucid.

The entire village was there, the young, the old, the conservative and the outgoing – dancing in the desert dust and loving. And that is what Senegal is about – culture is their national pride. And the industry is supporting not exploiting this.

Almost every musician who has made it, is resisting the desires to immigrate, building an infrastructure and trying to make a difference in their country. And the musicians are working closely with the youth, instilling hope and pushing the music business in a direction that will know many many more stars in the future. “The youth here have great talent, but they don’t have the opportunity to do anything – we must help the youth to do something and be known world wide,” says Coumba Gowlo, who recently went Platinum doing a Senegalese version of Miriam Makeba’s ‘Pata Pata.’ She has created a label (Sabar) and a night-club (the Jpessie nights) to fulfil this ambition and the vision of creating an infrastructure now for tomorrow.

“Everybody knows the media industry is not yet a money making industry,” says Youssou N’Dour who has famously developed a massive music and media business infrastructure, including the recording studio (Xippi), record label (Jololi), cassette plant, equipment rental company, night-club (Thiossane), radio station (7FM), newspaper (L’Info 7) and over 50 employers.

“It is an enterprise that will be for tomorrow,” he says. “I am a builder, like if computers become what they are today it is because Bill Gates believed in it. I vote for information on culture because this can get out the tyranny of the politics. Information about culture interests the public.”

And with four daily newspapers and a variety of radio stations, all dedicated to local content, the music of the region sings out everywhere. The small, dim and ebullient late-night hangouts dance to the chaotic mbalax rhythms, whilst sensual rumba goes down at the flash jazz den. On the back streets there’s a strong culture of hip hop, the main-streets are congested with panelbeaten black and yellow taxis bulging to the sounds of local music and bootleg cassette traders hunch over every street corner grooving to the greatest selection of Senegalese sounds.

It is an African culture with great pride, borne out of a sincere depth of tradition. A little like the Italians love their food. An Italian writer in disgusted response to the advent of a Macdonalds in Rome wrote ‘the slow food manifesto.’ A book defending the right for pleasure, the importance of preserving local foods and recipes and cultivating an environment that allows us a better quality of life. Eat less, but eat better.

And this is the same metaphor for the ‘fast music’ being served to us by the industry. It is offensive – it is about business, not art. Senegal is a much smaller country than ours, but their industry doesn’t patronise them, it feeds them properly, and we the South African public should demand the same, and then perhaps the industry will take notice.

This journey to Senegal makes up part of Dancing with the Diaspora – an initiative to reconnect Africa with itself through music.

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