‘It’s all about fair trade,” says Percy Yip Tong, a Mauritian record-label owner and festival director who attended South Africa’s annual Moshito music conference last week. “We talk about fair trade in coffee and bananas—we must have fair trade for music.”
Yip Tong is part of a delegation of 12 music industry professionals from throughout Africa who have been brought together under the banner of Equation Musique.
Formed in 2008, Equation Musique is funded by the French foreign affairs institution Culturesfrance and Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and aims to strengthen Africa’s music industries so that they can compete with the rest of the world.
But an unintended spin-off of the initiative is that relationships between the participants have developed substantially and now there is a lot more intra-African trade and exchange taking place as a result.
“After 25 years of fighting to promote my music, Equation Musique is like a revolution,” says Yip Tong, who runs a record label, Cyper Productions, and the Samemsa Indian Ocean music festival in Mauritius.
“When I booked Lucky Dube for my festival it was through a promoter in France and it cost me four times what it would have cost me through his South African agent, and that’s just not fair,” says Yip Tong. “I didn’t know the agent in South Africa at the time.
“The main problem for us is that when we play a festival we have to pay all the travel costs,” he says. “Often when we go to Europe we go through European agents and they take a large share of our profits.
“Now when I am looking for distribution I go to Sheer Sound in South Africa, I don’t go to that guy in France. If I want to go to a festival, I go to the Timitar festival in Morocco, not to Europe. So this is a huge strength for us.”
Valerie Thfoin from Culturesfrance says it is important to show the world that music professionals exist in Africa and that they can come together and build their markets.
“They have begun to work together and already we are seeing artistic collaborations, touring collaborations, and we are now even seeing professional collaborations where members are training music industry professionals in other African countries,” says Thfoin.
“Historically, there has been very little intra-Africa trade,” says Panji Anoff, a record-label owner and director of the High Vibes festival in Ghana. “But Equation Musique has made that possible and I can’t state often enough how important that is.”
Anoff runs a label called Pidgen Music out of Accra and says that the Equation Musique initiative has already had positive spin-offs for his artists.
“As an African music professional based in Ghana, I always had to work through people in North America and Europe and that meant that we often ended up tailoring the product to suit the middle man, rather than the consumer.
“I think that this has had a negative impact on our music. Equation Musique has given us the opportunity to take what we believe is the way forward directly to the market.”
It appears to be paying off. Anoff secured a major European tour for one of his artists through Equation Musique’s united front at European trade markets, and one of his artists, Wanlov the Kubolor, is touring South Africa in a month’s time.
“I have also been able to learn from other individuals based in Africa,” says Anoff.
“I am much more interested in the African markets than I am in the European or American markets, because I feel there is so little pan-African communication and we need to realise how much we have in common with each other.”
“Each time we meet as Equation Musique we find more ways to collaborate,” says Yusuf Mahmoud, a festival director from Tanzania.
“For example, artists from three of my fellow members have been accepted to play at my festival next year—one from Senegal, one from Kenya and one from Mozambique.”
Mahmoud has been running the Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) festival on the island of Zanzibar for six years now. In 2007 he was awarded a BBC Radio 3 World Shaker award for his contribution to Zanzibar’s music scene.
“We learn a lot from each other and I have been to so many festivals in Africa now and it helps us to gauge where we are,” says Mahmoud.
“For example, I went to the Timitar festival, which is run by one of our members from Morocco.
“On just the one day there were 250000 people there and I couldn’t believe it was happening in Africa.’
Equation Musique member Brahim El Mazned was so taken with what his fellow members were doing across Africa that he dedicated an entire stage to Equation Musique artists at the recent Timitar festival.
One of the bands featured was South Africa’s BLK JKS, who raved about the experience of playing the festival when the Mail & Guardian interviewed them a few weeks back.
“This programme was all about strengthening the southern nations to deal with the north, but what actually happened is that we have developed much stronger relationships with each other in Africa,” says Yip Tong.
“It has created the foundation of a strong African music professional group. Coming together under one umbrella and taking part at music conferences such as Moshito has allowed us some great networking opportunities, especially with the South African music industry,” says Mahmoud.
“Here at Moshito we are talking to Africans and we are talking to people who work in similar conditions to us and face similar challenges,” he says. “When we talk about working together we are on a similar level, so I think a lot more will come out of this.”