Being Ben in Benin: The Orchard Awards African Artist John Arcadius

John Arcadius Ouidah BluesOver the course of the last few decades, one of the main threads sewn into my life’s rich tapestry has been propagating the spread of music from the African continent to the rest of the world. I’ve spent countless years selling works by artists like Cesaria Evora and Manu Dibango in “musical containers,” transferring them from cassettes and LPs to downloads and streams.

As one of my previous blog posts about my travels in Africa suggests, there are many infrastructural constraints that make monetised access to music complicated across the continent. These include a lack of electricity, access to broadband internet networks, payment means and indeed often wherewithal. As a result, any solution to the current issues in Africa have to be mobile, inexpensive and flexible — something today’s digital economy is providing locally and globally.

The current development, rapidly evolving into a fully monetised reality of consumption, is the subject for a whole other post — stay tuned — but suffice it to say that certain actors have already favored this in other continents. Companies such as Deezer in partnership with Latin America’s Tigo, Google/YouTube which now monetizes a quarter of the African continent,  iTunes/Apple Music whose usage has grown extensively as access to 3G and WiFi has increased, and local players like Simfy Africa are all actively making the future a present reality in Africa. In some countries such as Senegal, the number of mobile telephones will soon outgrow the number of inhabitants, demonstrating the enormous demand for technology in countries that not too long ago were last to hear about these developments.

Now, I would like to focus more on the actual experience of representing The Orchard within this booming cultural explosion. The monetisation of music has become more feasible and works that were previously hidden beneath the surface have become more easily visible. I was fortunate to see this when I was recently chosen as a member of a Jury selecting artists for the third edition of the SIMA (Salon International de la Musique Africaine) in Cotonou, the capital of Benin.

At the venue known as The French Institute (in Benin as in a lot of West and Central African countries, French is the most commonly spoken language), the shows went on for five nights, with daytime conferences and meetings. There was an eerie resemblance to early Womex and Midem events from back when the CD was starting to make inroads around the world. The shows were all very well-attended and we saw people from countries such as Burkina Faso, Gabon, Togo and Mauritania — all countries that often remain under the radar for non-aficionados of African culture.

From the 150 candidates that I listened to, there were hardly any to ignore. Many were extremely talented musicians, professional, with growing fan bases, an understanding of their development potential and exceptional management. With sound and lighting that surpassed many other European gigs I have been to, artists were given a chance to shine outside of their local sphere and traveling musicians were even sponsored. There were too many talented and diverse artists — from Classical and Lyrical to House, Jazz, Blues, Reggae and Hip Hop — to make the limited 25 artist-cap for the Salon, but I enjoyed each and every one.

As judges, we then had to evaluate our favourite artists. Personally, I was a fan of Hip-Hop artist Ami Yerewolo from Mali. Her rapping in Bambara was only beaten in my opinion by John Arcadius’s performance. Arcadius was a Pop star in Benin who left the showbiz scene years ago to live from his painting and poetry in Belgium. He used this performance as his comeback to Benin as a reinvented Jazz musician — see the cover photo above.

Towards the end of the event, the moment to announce the winner had arrived. I stepped on stage as the elected President of the Board of judges in the Benin National Football stadium filled with 5,000 fairly nationalistic young music fans to announce the winner of the Jury Grand Prize. There was a sense of anticipation and a loud roar erupted when it was revealed that John Arcadius had won. This moment will remain engraved in my memory for years to come, since the first prize winner received a digital distribution contract with The Orchard, handed to him by yours truly.

What’s next? We will be actively promoting John Arcadius`s new album in early 2016 and getting him a chance to perform in Brazil with his idol, Milton Nascimento, in a festival organised by co-juror Gabriel Murilo. I salute Gabriel here as well as Anselme, Ali, Jules, Cecile, Raba, Fousseni and Eric Gbeha, le President du SIMA, all of whom were great partners in this week of mutual discovery and meetings. Some of those involved are local label partners for us as we develop our network within West and Central Africa, showing that music has no boundaries. Contagious and able to cross any frontier, when music hits you, “you feel no pain.”

Photo: Rights Reserved.

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