The Abajo Arts and Culture Cafe hosted an in-depth discussion on music and developing as an artist last Friday night. The evening was mediated by worldbeat musician, Kyekyeku, and joining him were Kay Boni, owner of Abajo Cafe, Panji Anoff, music and film producer, as well as writer and music critique, Hakeem Adam.
It was a perceptive confab amongst artists and musicians inside the comfy, polychromatic cafe, the idea of which came to Kay Boni in a dream one night. He fell in love with the infinite little creative spaces and small venues that dot the city of Berlin, where he lived for 18 years, and that concept obviously slipped into his subconscious and has since manifested as the incredibly cozy creative incubator for anything to do with music, art, and culture. Still riding the coattails of obscurity enough to protect its quiet charm and seductive mystery, Abajo has also created a loyal band of regulars. Newbies who get caught in its net find it an unimposing place to sip a beer, relax, or meet other musicians. Needless to say, it was a spot-on backdrop for this intimate discussion.
The speakers touched on their experiences and challenges that they find in both the industry as well as amongst emerging artists. Kyekyeku reflected on his observations of moving forward in his art.
“In the vein of getting your music from one point to another, there are things we can do that we sometimes ignore, and one of those things is getting your music reviewed,” he says. “When people read about your stuff from a review, they tend to get to know it more.”
Hakeem, who writes just such things, shared that it’s not all about getting a ‘good or bad’ review, but that a review in itself allows people to understand the connections the music is making to the world and how it can connect to them.
It’s about performance, too, of course, which is exactly what Kay Boni had in mind for Abajo.
Because in Berlin, “They don’t have a big budget to promote what they want to do, but they still do it because they want it to happen, they want it to be there,” he says. “They want people to come and see and enjoy, so I decided to do it the same way and have something here in Accra where people can just come as artists or performers.”
Panji brought some of his wisdom to the table concerning how he develops musicians into worldwide artists. He understands that good things take time, and spends a lengthy period working with an artist to evolve not only their music, but their skills in all other aspects of the business (and leaves wiggle room for mistakes).
“You really need to get most things right. You can’t be excellent in one area and terrible in others,” he states. “So just like you learn to play music, you have to learn to be an artist also. In learning to become an artist, I think the quality of your work improves dramatically.”
Of course, hiccups happen along the way. “You can’t actually teach anybody anything,” Panji says, straight-faced. “People only learn through making mistakes. Artist management is really about making sure every mistake you make is affordable.”
Kyekyeku notices that the lacklustre Ghanaian music representation in the rest of the world is a result of Ghana not “punching hard enough”. In comparison to places like Nigeria, Senegal, Cape Verde… “For some reason, we are not there. We cannot be found,” the musician says. “What happened and how can we chase this? ‘Cause I believe we have this yearning to take up music.”
Reggae artist Oga Chux, born to Nigerian and Ghanaian parents – and who has lived in both countries, noted that Ghana isn’t as willing to accept what they have right here at home as compared to Nigeria. He finds that in Ghana, people are much quicker to adopt trends coming from Europe.
Selorm Jay, founder of hip hop platform yoyo tinz, observed something similar. After spending a couple months in Nigeria, he noticed that Ghana might be moving too fast for its own good. “Sometimes I feel like Ghana is too quick to change. We don’t know how to hold on to beats,” he says. “I think Nigerians know how to hold on to things. I think we have so much. So maybe we should sit down and try to push one thing at a time.”
In terms of personal development, Panji shared his number one criteria for working with someone. “If you cannot think beyond religion, it’s very difficult to become an artist,” the producer says. “I look for people who will abandon religion and adopt art as their religion. You’ll notice all the artists I work with have gone beyond religion as a source of inspiration, and at the very least they will try to commune directly with God and not through any man made vehicles.”
Panji states that his religion is love and that his label, Pidgin Music, has always said that feeling is believing, God is love. “I don’t accept anything beyond that and for me, religion really impedes your artistic development.”
The past journalist, scriptwriter and now producer exclusively works with non-religious artists with fair reason. “In order to embrace the bigger world, or in order to grow bigger than yourself, you’ve got to take things from the outside, and if the things that you take from the outside are chosen by you individually, it can be helpful,” he explains. “This is how religion becomes a problem, because religion forces you to adopt a set of rules and cultures in their entirety.” Religion does not condone one to pick and choose the principles of it they like. “They are not options,” Panji continues. “Life is about options and reducing someone’s options by a set of rules and laws stops them from exploring the world with an open mind and it stops them from discovering. I think we must discover. It’s what life is about. Life is about learning.”
Kyekyeku also focused on the importance of DIY – not relying on a manager or outside sources to do the work for you. By finding work yourself, you can establish immediate connections with people in the industry and cut costs simultaneously. “Learn how to raise money. If you can raise money then you can move yourself into different territories,” he says.
“Music is a business and an art – you have to understand that,” Hakeem adds. “To get paid, you have to consciously try to get paid. There are a lot of artists out there, so you have to be active.”
But the most important thing you are going to need along the way? “Patience,” Kyekyeku says. “You’re not gonna make it right away. It takes a long time. You want to make something of substance.”