How to enter the international music arena

The Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou. (Photo by Petri Burtsov. All rights reserved.)

What are some of the challenges that African musicians face when trying to enter the European music scene? What can they do to overcome those challenges, and how could the Ugandan scene, for instance, benefit from the international success of some Ugandan artists?

Written by Petri Burtsov

I put these questions to the Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou—a band from Benin that ended its world tour at the Flow Festival in Helsinki, Finland. Although the band has been around since the 1960s in their native Benin, their international success is a fairly recent phenomenon. They should therefore be well placed to offer some useful insights to aspiring Ugandan artists with big international dreams.

Hard work and consistency

The most important thing, they say, is hard work and consistency. “You have to keep on writing new songs and improving your stage show,” says one of the band members.

Reputation is really important, so you cannot afford to disappoint the audience. If you fail, the press won’t forgive you, and you might struggle to get more gigs. Many event organizers hire African acts based on hearsay and recommendations from their friends, which means that disappointing somebody stays with you.

Another challenge, especially when it comes to the festival scene, is timetables.

“In Africa, we are used to not worry about schedule and duration on stage, time is not so important for us, but in Europe you can’t play with time,” they say. Sometimes all you have is 15 minutes for your line check.

Fifi LePrince, guitarist backstage. (Photo by Petri Burtsov. All rights reserved)

How to get discovered

The biggest challenge, however, is to get discovered. You need to work tirelessly in identifying and contacting the right people—managers, record companies, and festival organizers.

“But you shouldn’t get lost in the process. It is important to stick to your unique musical style, and not to change it in the hope of appealing to the European audience,” the band says.

When comparing East African and West African music, Poly Rythmo agrees that West African artists have been more successful internationally. East African music is relatively unknown even in other parts of Africa, but is doesn’t have to be this way.

“There are many hidden treasures amongst the East African musicians,” the band says, having heard several of them at the Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar earlier this year.

Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou at the Flow Festival in Finland. (Photo by Petri Burtsov. All rights reserved)

Sharing knowledge in workshops

Finally, I asked the band as they were making their way to the Flow Festival stage, how the Ugandan music scene would benefit from the international success of the Ugandan artists.

“In Benin, we have organized workshops to share our knowledge and experiences about the European music scene. It is important that the Ugandan musicians work together in a similar way,” the band advises.

As they take the stage, I am excited to see how the audience reacts to their style, which is rooted in the Beninese music tradition. It doesn’t take long until thousands of people start dancing and jamming along these West African rhythms that they’re never heard of before.

It is easily one of the most liked gigs of the festival that attracts close to a hundred thousand visitors. Finland’s main newspaper features the band on their frontage the following day.

I keep thinking that one day some of the several great Ugandan acts that I’ve seen during my two years in the country will take the stage is a similar fashion.

Petri Burtsov is the East Africa Correspondent of the Finnish Broadcasting Company.