For over 20 years, Cameroonian Guy Marc Tony Mefe has worked to support and assist artists from Central Africa. From travel companion of director of Vincent Mambachaka at the Linga Tere space, to member of the International Artistic Committee of the Abidjan Market for the Performing Arts (MASA), he has been running the Escale Bantoo project since 2016. Faced with the challenges of the pandemic and the mass arrival of the digital world, he shares his vision of the future.
What made you commit to defending and promoting African artists?
In the early 1990s, I hosted a radio programme in Cameroon with a few friends. Even then, we wanted to echo the difficulties that artists face. But my light-bulb moment was reading the minutes of a symposium that took place in Brazzaville with the theme of “improving” the working and living conditions of African artists living on the continent. All the issues of the cultural realm jumped out at me, in an institutional language that I didn’t know. The association Zone Franche had also just published Sans Visa, its guide to music from the French-speaking sphere and the world.This all taught me that if I wanted to protect and support artists, my place was not on the radio.
What was the state of the cultural sector in Africa at the time and how has it evolved since?
Twenty years ago, any talk of structuring and professionalisation was completely new. Music and theatre were doing well, but were considered leisure activities. Nobody thought they could make a career out of them. The arrival of international cooperation programmes, like the French Association for Artistic Action (AFAA), the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) or the European Union created a certain effervescence. New venues and festivals emerged. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that we’ve made much progress. In Central Africa, for example, we’ve gone from around thirty theatre festivals to around ten today. Other major events, such as the Rencontres musicales de Yaoundé or the MASSAO (ed. International Festival of Women's Voices in Douala, Cameroon), have not survived.
How do you explain the way this initial energy has been gradually consumed?
There has not been enough development in terms of infrastructure to offer artists decent working conditions. When Western funding decreased after the 2008 crisis, plenty of cultural operators went bust because there are no local support mechanisms. Our problems remain the same today: we need to structure the sectors, support professionalisation and give artists visibility. There is one new battle, though: to get local governments to commit to drawing up an administrative and legal framework that would make the cultural sector a driver for economic growth while ensuring that international cooperation endures.
Supporting artists and offering them a showcase are central ideas to the Escale Bantoo. How did this project take shape?
It all started from my desire to get back into music, after spending a long time working in the world of theatre. After radio, I had a few spells as a manager for different music groups. In 2014, I updated an old project by a key cultural player in the mid-1990s, Jean Pierre Bebey, which focused on setting up a Cameroonian stage at the 2017 MASA. Two years later, we presented five groups from Central Africa at the MASA. Because we had identified areas that were lacking in terms of the organisation of the groups, but also a real dynamism from the singers, we came up with a project dedicated to promoting female singers and giving them a framework, called Le Programme Fame, with an “a” to accentuate this creative female soul (âme in French). After the first edition of the Festival of Women’s Voices, the managing director of the MASA gave us the means to set up a musical stage dedicated to Central Africa at the 2018 MASA. That was where the idea for the Escale Bantoo came from: to enable our artists to lay down their hats, to “call in” at major events that are bigger than our little festival in Douala.
What are the goals and highlights of this event?
From the beginning, the aim was to give young artists from the subregion the ability to perform in front of professionals from the international scene. The Escale Bantoo has three key parts. The festival, which is held every other year in Douala, remains the central highlight. This is where artists and international players from the world music sector can interact through showcases, conferences and speed-meetings. Between the two editions of the Salon de Douala festival, we travel to the MASA and the Visa For Music festival in Rabat, founded by Brahim El Mazned. Finally, we support our artists all year round through promotional activities and by organising smaller concerts.
This year, the third edition was subjected to the full force of the pandemic. How did you take to this forced move into the digital?
As the Escale Bantoo is a biennial event, we had already started the process very early, long before the pandemic arrived. We couldn’t just cancel and stay silent for three years, so we needed to implement some unique processes that we knew very little about. The advantage is that when you’re used to making do with little, you adapt quickly. We looked at what people were doing elsewhere, at the Midem (ed. the International market for music and music publishing) for example. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Because Central Africa still has problems with connecting to the internet, it’s impossible to organise a live online event. So, we made recordings of all the groups in Douala, Kinshasa, N’Djamena and Lomé. 7 video-conferences on the central theme of the Digital enabled around fifty speakers from around the world to share their visions on the subject. The 16 showcases and 7 video-conferences can be viewed online, on the official Facebook page of the Escale Bantoo.
You have focused the theme of the conferences on the digital world. Did you feel this was essential?
African musicians generally use the digital world as a promotional tool. Before this crisis, I personally was not all that interested in digital issues. This fortuitous immersion has enabled me to learn more, particularly on the subject of royalties and copyright. We really need to talk about the role that the digital world has taken on in the realm of live performance. Because while it offers greater visibility, it does not solve all the problems of African artists, particularly when it comes to mobility.
After this crisis, what challenges are artists and event organisers like you facing?
Lots of people are worried about the consequences of the crisis on the living conditions of African artists, but I’m not convinced the impact will be quite so serious. A few musicians who play at international festivals will suffer from it in the immediate term, of course, but most of our local artists don’t have those resources. In the medium term, however, the economic crisis will have an impact on the companies and sponsors who support them, and that’s maybe what we should be worrying about. To get through it, I think the solution lies in our ability to stick together. It’s through solidarity that we have been able to put on this edition of the Escale Bantoo. We also need to be able to put forward proposals to our governments, together. The crisis should force us to unite; if we don’t nothing will change.
Supported by the Institut français, the Salon de l'Escale Bantoo took place from 27 to 30 October 2020 in Douala.
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