»Once you’ve got some momentum, miracles start to happen.«​

Serge Maboma, Deputy Chairperson, Music In Africa Foundation

How Music In Africa is changing the music landscape

Six years after launching in 2013, it is hard to imagine the world of African music without the Music In Africa Foundation and its musicinafrica.net online portal. The portal is a self-organized networking switchboard for musicians, producers, and organizations from all over the continent; a source of inspiration for countless local initiatives; and a hub of information on events such as the annual ACCES music conference. Aisha Deme (Senegal), who served as the head of the Music In Africa Foundation Board of Management until last year, and Serge Maboma (Cameroon) – a new board member – spoke with music journalist Max Nyffeler on how working with Music In Africa has changed their lives.   

Aisha Deme, Serge Maboma, how does the work of the Music In Africa Foundation influence the music scene?

Aisha Deme: There are many ways. One is, of course, the website musicinafrica.net – an important source of information on our music. There has never been anything like it before. The portal contains a ton of information on things like musical training, performance spaces, or lesser-known artists. People now know where to find this information. They talk to each other and network, and new profiles are being created all the time. It is remarkable what has taken place there.

And the other points?

Aisha Deme: Those are things that start on the portal but then spread to real-life. Things like regional workshops with professional musicians, or the recent workshops on the production and maintenance of traditional instruments. There is also the annual ACCES conference, with all the networking, performances, and especially the podium discussions – they focus on topics that are quite relevant and encourage people to come up with new ideas.

Serge Maboma: I can only second that. For us – the musicians – Music In Africa is a great tool because it removes so many obstacles from our path. In the past, we had to go through all kinds of contortions to even get the tiniest sliver of information. Now, no matter where a musician is, all it takes is a few taps on the smartphone to find out the steps that are needed to perform at a festival, for example. The biggest question is still: “What do I have to do to make it further in the music business? How do I get in touch with the people organizing music events?” In the portal, there are now plenty of listings for events, and in each monthly newsletter there is so much information that you’ve got no one to blame but yourself if you miss it. The excuse “I don’t know how that works” is no longer valid. musicinafrica.net has information on every corner of Africa, and about artists and their initiatives. The portal is a tool that allows us to organize ourselves professionally at the local level.

You have both been active with the Music In Africa Foundation for years. How has working with the foundation impacted your professional and personal lives?

Serge Maboma: I’ll just say it: Music In Africa turned my life upside-down. I’ve always tried to make sure my band performs to the best of our ability on stage and that we have the best concerts possible. But I always felt held back in some way, and I didn’t know how we could get in touch with other people. When I took part in a Music In Africa general meeting for the first time, I was amazed to see people actually doing the things I didn’t really believe were happening: coming together in a structured way and collaborating! I had the honor of being accepted into their ranks, and I learned a lot. When I returned to my bandmates, I said to them: “Guys, we’ve done a lot, but we’re missing the most important thing: getting on the path to becoming real professionals.”

What is a “real professional” for you?

Serge Maboma: An artist who is also able to handle the administrative side. These were things we hadn’t yet considered. Thanks to what I learned from Music In Africa, I realized that there were plenty of opportunities to change the music scene in Cameroon. As artists, we were always taught: “Learn your instrument, and then wait.” But wait for what? No idea! Suddenly, it was clear to me: Everyone that I had previously been in contact with –  festival organizers, fellow musicians, or my younger sister Aisha – were all essentially artists who wanted to achieve something. That’s how I became actively involved in event organization. That changed everything: for me as a person to how I saw other musicians. People start coming up to you and asking you things because they have the impression you know a bit about areas where there is work, that sort of thing. I am still learning, and my approach to the work has changed: I have a better idea of what still needs to be done and what is possible – here at home and all over Africa. It is unbelievable! Up until recently, I didn’t even know what I could do for my own neighborhood!

Aisha Deme: I am glad to hear that. That is exactly the purpose of Music In Africa, and it is a perfect example of the benefit of our organization: straight to the point and wonderfully expressed.

And what about you, Aisha Deme? Have things changed in your life since you started working for the foundation?

Aisha Deme: Yes, in many ways, but mainly regarding my awareness of African music. I’m from Senegal, and I’m quite familiar with the cultural sector there. But I didn’t know the other countries very well, especially English-speaking Africa: South Africa, Kenya, etc. Thanks to Music In Africa, I got to know and understand all these other musical landscapes. African cultures are very different: culture in Western Africa is a lot different than it is in Kenya. Beyond that, I learned a lot about the administrative and strategic side of things due to my work on the Music In Africa board. And, of course, there is the personal side of things. The people are like a huge family for me. We’ve grown together, and our meetings are not simple routines of racing in, doing your work, and then leaving. It is a collaborative effort among colleagues on a human level. It’s really touching.

The role of women is currently quite relevant in terms of developing African societies. Is that also reflected in the foundation’s work?

Aisha Deme: That is a very broad subject and a constant challenge! As a woman in the music industry, it is hard anywhere, but in Africa in particular. The environment is tough, both socially and professionally. Music In Africa made it a point thoroughly examine this topic. We raised the issue in the panels back at the ACCES conference 2017 in Dakar and created awareness for it. Now, the first projects were being launched.

At ACCES 2017, Maah Keita took part in a round-table discussion that covered women in the music industry. She is the first female bass guitar player from Senegal and is operating in an environment that is predominantly male.

How is she doing?

Aisha Deme: She’s doing well, but it isn’t easy. Fortunately, she has a supporting family. The great thing is, she is now a role model for other girls who want to make music. That is how it should be. That is what we’re all about. We want to be role models for other women and encourage them. Personally, I am not a musician, but I hear a lot from young girls who write to me or tell me during a conversation: “You inspired me because you’re at Music In Africa; you’re on the board, you’re the chair.” That alone makes me want to continue along this path and to see what we can accomplish.

There are also a lot of women on the panels at the ACCES conferences.

Aisha Deme: Yes, that is fantastic. That is another hallmark of Music In Africa. We really try and reach a balanced ratio of men and women. There are talented women in the music branch, and I am very happy about that because they are absolutely brilliant on stage. I am grateful to the team that organized it all that everything came together so well.

Serge Maboma, part of the focus of your work in Cameroon is on music education. What has been the impact of Music In Africa in that field?

Serge Maboma: We’ve always had a young audience, so I started working with children years ago without really giving it much thought. But there were certain cases where we simply didn’t have the knowledge to give the right advice to young people. Taking part in the Music In Africa meetings taught me what I needed to know, and then I was able to provide some direction for the younger ones. As I said, in the past we simply focused on each person’s individual mastery of an instrument. That was the only thing that mattered. You would say to yourself: “When I’ve got my instrument down, I’ve got a better chance of making a career.” That is true, but we were missing lessons about the organizational requirements. Sometimes details that appear to be secondary are what end up really mattering. Today, I tell young artists: “Listen up, the first thing you need is a passport!” It sounds trivial now, but a few years ago, it was quite a big deal to tell a young musician he needed a passport in Cameroon.

Is the passport issue something you have personally experienced?

Serge Maboma: One morning I got a call from Youssou N’Dour, a musician I had the pleasure of working with. He asked me to get together a few musicians for a few days. But getting a passport takes a month, and we needed to send the documents right away! Today, I impress three things on young people: “If you don’t have official documents, you can’t work. If your instruments are not in tip-top shape, you can’t work. If you don’t have internet and can’t check your email, you can’t work.” I only became aware of things after working with Music In Africa. Since then I’ve really tried to spread that knowledge. After every Music In Africa conference, I organize a few meet-ups with young musicians and tell them about what was said at the conference and with whom I had a chance to speak. These are often people we only know from the internet, but when young musicians hear that I got the suggestions I’m giving them directly from these artists, I become much more credible. This makes it easier to pass on my knowledge. The fact that I am a board member at Music In Africa gives the things I say even more weight. I hope I this helps me bring about real change in the music industry.

What would that kind of change look like?

Serge Maboma: Borders in Africa would need to become much more porous for musicians, to name one example. To make it possible to travel to Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, or Chad without any problems to meet musicians there. We need to build bridges between the wide range of cultures in Africa. It’s about giving and taking.

Are you working in your own capacity or do have institutional support?

Serge Maboma: I do work as part of an organization; it is called Urban Live. We made what is known as urban music popular in Cameron and discovered young people who eventually became stars in Cameroon’s music scene. As part of my experience with Music In Africa, I created the Bourdi Association. “Bourdi” is Fulfulde, one of the languages in Cameroon, and it means “broom.”

That illustrates your purpose quite well.

Serge Maboma: Right – a classic broom for sweeping up. That’s what I called this musicians’ association. I told them: “We are going to tidy up in our own minds, in the minds of society, and in our surroundings so people understand the purpose of music and what it has to share.” As musicians, we don’t want to be passive, we want to set things in motion. If we don’t do anything, things will just stay the way they are. But if we get active, things happen. I’ve experienced it myself. Then I told them: “Once you’ve got some momentum, miracles start to happen. So, get going!” In Cameroon I have a community of excellent musicians that want to follow my lead. We’re going to create new locations for performances in Cameroon. The most important thing is that we want to speak to people in each place and earn credibility through our actions. Not only is that good for our image, but there is also a financial benefit.

Aisha Deme, are your goals in Senegal similar?

Aisha Deme: They are essentially the same, but my personal focus is a little broader. I go beyond music and deal with all aspects of culture. The creative sector in general needs more structure. Artists need more guidance: they need clarity on their goals and their working methods. It is not easy. In Senegal, we have a lot of young people who are creative and want to do something meaningful, but who have not figured out things like the passport, for example. There is a lot that needs to be changed. The project I am currently working on is a program for entrepreneurs in the cultural sector. They come up with a project idea and we help them develop it. We provide tools, training, and mentoring. These are young people from all over Africa.

We wish you both all the best with your plans! Thanks very much for the interview.

June 2019