The Flee Project - raising awareness of Benga music

Three Europeans manage to bypass cultural appropriation by reissuing Benga classics. Benga is a kind of Kenyan folk music that had fallen into oblivion.

How did three Europeans manage to bypass cultural appropriation by reissuing Benga classics? Benga is a kind of Kenyan folk music that had fallen into oblivion.

We know the past exotic tendencies of certain conquerors. Male adventurers in search of a cultural fetish on which to hang their conquering ego, claimed the honour of infusing privileged microcosms with a hint of the “tropicalism”, during their search … The Flee Project starts from a more or less similar position with its attempt to shine a light into a musical genre and thus to give Benga a place in the limelight.

A vinyl edition, loaded with reinterpretations of Benga music and rare masterpieces, a richly documented magazine … Flee contains everything collectable, sealed rather like a geopolitical magazine for diplomats, rather than a trophy magazine cut from a world map of the unusual and esoteric. Olivier Duport, one of Flee’s three creators, attempts to clarify its intentions and finer points for us during an interview.

Do all three of you have academic experience in, for example, the social sciences, musicology or anthropology? We all come from the fields of political sciences and humanities so it seemed natural to me that this should make us sensitive to cultural issues. It was important for us to search out people who make their jobs in these fields (musicology, anthropology …).

The magazine opens with an article that expresses our point of view on the global distribution of niche music. Researchers in this area along with Kenyan journalists were called upon to sharpen up our point of view.

Our goal was to dissect this music, politically, socially and technically.

Is Flee also a critical attempt over postcolonialism in music?

That was more or less our original idea although we have, of course, encountered financial and time limitations. We could just as easily have gone to Kenya, brought back twenty records and marketed them in Europe.

This would probably have been more profitable! Lots of people do it today and it is unfortunate that these import-export activities, this “tropicalism” is so widespread. The archetypal person who wears a short-sleeved shirt printed with banana patterns and who listens to Afro is still our audience. It was stressful to design a magazine with such abstract graphics … Breaking away from these lines could have kept us away from our “target” audience but the response was rather positive, which showed us there was a more global consumer demand for such music and cultural property.

On the other hand, I’m surprised that we haven’t been attacked more.

We are three white Europeans who decided to build a project around African music by contextualizing it. The angles of attack could have been numerous. What saved us was to say that we are not experts: we are neither diggers nor music-ethnologists. We noticed that this music was little performed or broadcast, we tried to answer this by creating the magazine. We also wondered why it was so underrated. It’s a reminder that although Kenya is a country that has freed itself from colonialism it still keeps many of its codes. Unlike some countries in West Africa.

Building Flee was also the discovery of the Kenyan context in Pan-Africanism.

Flee provided a way of responding to issues of cultural appropriation. That’s why we interviewed Emmanuel Mwendwa, a Kenyan journalist who specialises in Benga. Our goal was to give him a voice. We also gave our opinions, but Flee is conceived more as a cultural engineering platform rather than as an exotic product. Another way of expressing our affection for this music is through our choice of contemporary musicians (Benga lost its popularity in the 1980s, editor’s note).

Last December, you presented Flee in Nairobi. What were the reactions of the Kenyan public?

I feel that we have aroused the awareness of Kenyans.

At first, our legitimacy was questioned. I think we were perceived as competitors, as despite the fact that Benga only represents a modest economy, it does provide an income for some folks. In the end, though, our project is a selfless initiative and we are not looking to make a profit. As I explained earlier, there are easier ways to make profit of this music.

Will the musicians receive any payment from Flee’s sales?

Unfortunately, they are all dead! Benga peaked in the 1970s and life expectancy in Kenya is much lower than in European countries. Most of Benga’s musicians were not equipped to understand the crazy music industry of the time, which took advantage of the artists.

We asked Jojo Records, a Kenyan label, to license and use the songs. A portion of the magazine’s revenues is therefore donated to this label, although we expressed reservations about the amount families received from this income. Unfortunately, the Kenyan labels who owned these pieces in the 70’s probably used scandalous business practices. This phenomenon is not, however, unique to Africa. Motown is another sad example. This was part of the limitations of our project.

Was it a choice not to tell the Benga story by commemorating the lives of these musicians?

As I explained, it was during the 1970s that Benga reached its climax. The genre may have been forgotten, but it is not dead. There are still musicians who play Benga, essentially from Kenya. We are not the first to edit Benga compilations and I hope we will not be the last! We clearly wanted to avoid making a posthumous homage to this genre. Our choice to publish dead artists is an artistic choice, although a modern Benga scene does exist, I consider it to be much less interesting. That’s why we wanted to reinvent Benga in the world of contemporary musicians.

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Was the choice of musicians who participated in the pieces also an artistic choice?

All of our expectations have not necessarily been met with regard to the selections, but that’s the nature of the game. At the same time, the collaboration with Jaakko Eino Kalevi has been excellent. It’s a nod to everything that basically makes up pop and entrusting it to this project meant thinking outside the box. We did not just want to entrust this work to “Afro” producers. It’s also my favourite piece! On the other hand, African 808 has great expertise in what encompasses this music vocabulary. They are conscientious people with whom we share this critical approach to the world of reissues. Overall, it was a challenge suggesting to these artists that they collaborate because nothing could predict whether they would be inspired by our selection of songs.

Does producing the Flee Project only in vinyl and magazine format, limit its public reach?

The first release went well and we knew that the project would, above all, speak to collectors. We wanted, however, to avoid Flee taking on too speculative a dimension so we tried to work around this problem by putting the address on the mailing covers. It limited this problem; some buyers have asked us to remove it! In today’s era, music is just a stream, no one possesses it and it’s consumed accordingly. Betting on an atypical format such as vinyl / paper also delivers a snobbish dimension, we are aware of this and it is another part of the project’s limitations. This is also why the project is available digitally.

Do you already have an idea about the contents of the second issue?

Yes! We would like to focus on Italian music from Puglia. This choice is totally subjective but we want to keep the same rigour of research. We had been asked many times if we were going to work on another Kenyan or African music project. This is a legitimate question but it brings us back to the labels we have to work with! We were sometimes nicknamed “Afro-diggers”. That annoys me! I do not want that label. To return to Puglia … The Tarantella is music combined with incredible storytelling.

BENGA MUSIC – A SIGNATURE GENRE FROM KENYA REPRESS IS OUT APRIL 09