By Mamour M Mbenga
According to the Los Angeles Times, what Bill Graham was to rock music, Oko Drammeh is to African music. He has been a phenomenal fulcrum to the growth and promotion of African music. A disk jockey(DJ), Music producer and Festival Impresario, Drammeh is well known for putting on concerts all over the world, the first being the African Music Festival that attracted over ten thousand attendees annually. Drammeh is largely responsible for the increased popularity of African music worldwide and has continued to promote African music and its artists through festivals, symposiums, concerts, radio and TV programmes. Oko Drammeh is currently in Kenya on a peace concert in line with the Africa Union’s Africa We Want campaign.
“I come to Kenya specifically because western Africa is well done. It is just that when you get here is when you realize Kenya has its own music yet it is not crossing borders. If you stay in your country you will not change your ideas,” he says.
The festival, to be held on December 5, 2015, will be a peace concert in line with the Africa Union’s Africa We Want campaign.
“East Africa is a troublesome region. We need to clean it up and make it a cultural capital. The great people that come from East Africa have been part of the great force of Africa, from Kenyatta to Nyerere,” Drammeh says.
Before the concert, there will be a conference on December 4 on Africa music industry. It will bring together the youth in Kenya annually for the next five years to discuss issues that affect their countries and share these problems with other African partners.
The artists headlining the festival will be Mory Kante, renowned as the first ever African whose single sold over one million copies, for the song Yeke Yeke. It will also feature Alpha Blondy,
“I told the African artistes I found at record companies that their music, thoughts and energies will need to be catalogued because what is not American, European, or Asian music will not be played in the respective channels in the future,” he said, adding that his upbringing in an environment where artist get paid made him want to inject the same in Africa.
“Africa has reversed to colonial days in terms of musical art. All other aspects of African culture have been driven towards the Pan African dream except the African music. The young people have been demonized by western influence, they become billboards for European and American products,” he added, saying that most artistes are not known in other African countries because they opt to target Europe and America yet there are no outlets for African music
“Most musicians have no experience with instruments yet the instrument dictates the vocals. You cannot just produce the vocals and pick anything to go with it. It does not work like that.”
He believes that one of the main things we fail as Africans in marketing the music is taking advantage of the media.
“We know about America through newspaper, TV and radio. I want Africans to be known this way,” he said.
He added that once most of our artiste goes to Europe or America, they change in their personality and presentation and this overshadows the music industry in Africa.
“Management is the discipline to nurture and also to channel your artists through definitive avenues where they can perform at stages that makes someone special like recording, media packaging, imaging, interview language, dialogue with audience and media. The artists alone will not showcase the music or culture,” he said.
He also believes that the presence of stringent rules and regulations between countries and the absence of leaders who understand the music industry limit the exposure of music to the world.
“Artistes suffer as decisions are made from non-artiste individuals all the way to the government level. Ministers do not know music. We need a person that understands music, art economy and marketing so that he can choose the right people in various departments to market the artistes,” he insists.
With his over 30 years’ experience in handling musicians, Drammeh believes Africa has the ability to transform their music and keep its unique sound. It is for this reason that he decided to come back to the motherland to hold the African Music Festival.
For him, artistes fail in marketing because they do not have professional managers. Instead they have friends and relatives holding key positions that would see them presented to the world
Oko Drammeh was born in Gambia to Kebba Landing Drammeh, a chief engineer at the Gambia Marine, and Ya Arret Mboge, a political activist. He grew up working as a disk jockey for radio stations, nightclubs and social events. Later, Drammeh became the producer and promotions manager of a Gambian musical band called Infang Bondi, through which he was able to learn more about the Gambian music scene. In 1981, he moved to Holland to join his family. While in Europe, he realized that Infang Bondi and African music in general, was unique and could compete with sounds from other parts of the world.
This led him to launch the African Music Festival in 1983. Drammeh rightly predicted that there would be increased interest in African music across the world and he wanted to be on the frontline in offering it a platform that made African music and its artists visible to the world. The festival gained popularity in Europe drawing more than ten thousand people annually and becoming one of the world’s largest African music events, featuring musicians, drummers and dancers from all over Africa. Most of the major names in African music including Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, Soto Koto Band, Angelique Kidgo, Salif Keita and a host of others have graced the festival’s stages. The festival became one of The Netherlands’ biggest tourist attractions, gaining the support of the Dutch Ministry of Culture and City of Delft. Consequently, Drammeh was handed numerous awards by the government of Holland and the City of Delft. The festival then spread to Amsterdam under the title “African Feeling Concert Series” which exhibited African artists who had made the European and American charts. The concerts were held at Paradiso rock concert hall in Amsterdam, featuring Africa’s greats including Salif Keita, Manu Dibango and Youssou N’dour.
Due to increased popularity, the festival made its debut in America in 1997 at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood, California and was received wonderfully. Drammeh was awarded a certificate of honour by the senate of California for bringing the African Music Festival to America. OkoDrammeh took the festival further by organizing the Nanning Music Festival in Nanning, China. After the success of the Nanning Festival, Drammeh was called on to organize a Convention of Music and Arts in Beijing with the aim of educating the Chinese people on organizing festivals, fashionable pop events and any other cultural event. During his visit to China, Drammeh toured the country and established partnerships with the Chinese in 2009. In the same year, the Soto Koto Band was invited to Japan to inaugurate the city of Kyoto as the world’s green city. The band also performed in two concerts in Tokyo. In a search for the roots of reggae, calypso and Page 2 of 3 afro-Cuban music, Drammeh also went on an African cultural tour in the Caribbean islands in Jamaica, Cuba, Antigua, Martinique, Trinidad and Guadalupe.
Drammeh went on to bring African troubadours, also known as griots, from West Africa on a US tour. He dubbed their concerts the “Night of the Griots”, a musical and cultural experience highlighting the history and poetic storytelling of a traditional musician and singer and his 21-string kora instrument. It was an experience of acoustic kora music and singing in which griots and the traditional sound of kora music exposed authentic and traditional Mandingo music to American audiences, creating a platform for cultural exchange between the USA and West Africa.
After years of organizing concerts and festivals, the world music deejay and festival promoter founded the Soto Koto Concert Management in 2000, which is a music company that provides competent technical support services to artists and event organizers. His Hollywood-based music company was named in memory of Drammeh’s late brother, who had a football club called Soto Koto Vous. Drammeh later formed the famous Soto Koto Band that entailed a group of preeminent musicians from all over the world who unified a diverse range of modern and ancient musical influences. The band combined the rhythms of Africa, the music sensibility of modern dance music, and the intensity of big band jazz. The Soto Koto band collaborated with West African vocalist Abdel Kabirr to record an album titled “Gumbay Dance”. Thereafter, the band worked together with renowned Gambian vocalist Paps Touray to record two albums “The Soto Koto Band” and “Mandingo Beat”. Soto Koto Band went on to work with Gambian kora master JalibaKuyateh to record “Kora Dance”. While in Hollywood, Drammeh also worked as a music producer for Higher Music Octave whose music is distributed by Virgin Music Records in the USA and by EMI records worldwide.
In addition to producing several albums for the Soto Koto Band, Drammeh has also produced documentaries on African music and culture for BBC, written articles for Downbeat Magazine and has organized a large number of festivals, concerts, symposiums and other cultural exhibitions. He also gave a lecture series while he was in Austin, Texas and was awarded an honorary doctorate degree of arts from the University of Texas.
In his continuous quest to promote African music, Drammeh has contributed largely to the African creative sector, especially in The Gambia. In 2006, he was elected the public relations officer of the Gambia Music Union and re-elected in 2010. When the Union of Gambian Musicians (MUSIGAM) was formed in 2008, Oko Drammeh was elected the public relations officer. He played a crucial role in the formation of the Gambia Copyright Office where he served as the secretary of the office until 2012. That same year, Drammeh was elected as the secretary general of the newly inaugurated Royalty Collecting Society of Gambia. He is currently serving in the board of directors as the public relations officer of the Arterial Network Gambia that is an Africa-wide network of organisations, festivals, companies and individual artists working in the creative and cultural sector across Africa. Drammeh is an artistic consultant at the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor in Dakar, Senegal. The centre is a performing arts school specialized in Page 3 of 3 teaching drama, theatre, film, comedy and classical dance. He believes that there is great potential in the African arts sector and he is determined to promote the arts and educate artists.
Due to his passion for African music and the great strides he’s taken to put African music on the map throughout his over twenty-year career, Oko Drammeh has earned the respectable position he holds in the music industry around the world.