EDM booming in Addis and beyond

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Photo by: Aron Simeneh

The live music and festival market is currently worth around USD 2.7 billion globally with that number to almost double in 2020. World renowned music festivals such as Tomorrow land in Amsterdam, Sónar in Spain or Ultra Music Festival in Miami Florida attract millions of music lovers and bring in millions in revenue.
Here in Ethiopia, large scale, or even medium scale music festivals are not something that are well known. Back in the day there were yearly festivals such as Acacia Jazz Festival or Selam Music Festival that were looked forward to by many people. Unfortunately, those events are no more, but recently, on October 20th, 2017, an electro music festival called BiRA BiRO, a full on electro festival, debuted, and the results were more than the organizers and fans expected.
“Look at the biggest musical gatherings in the world; they are all electronic, that is the lifestyle right now, artists are expressing themselves in that specific genre, specific sound and people are relating to it. The young generation here wants more of that, you have 16, 17 year olds that have become producers in their bedrooms, and they are begging for more exposure but unless we give them the resources, we talk about them and unless we acknowledge their existence, they are not going to get anywhere,” says Guta Wakuma, a promoter and owner of CHOO CHOO Promotions a company dedicated to introducing the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) lifestyle and other arts.
Speaking about the EDM scene in Ethiopia, Guta says it is still considered an underground movement but changing rapidly.
“Right now it’s all underground and we are trying to change that and make it commercial because once you do that there is a lot of money in it, there will be a lot more listeners and a lot more media attention and when that happens, people will start producing more; more artists, more creations, more venues, more promoters and so on. Even for the economy, it will be contributing immensely; it will contribute to the entertainment business and for the people in general,” he said.
Because of the amount of revenue that is generated through large-scale music festivals, it has been included as a key part of tourism in many countries and has been given a lot of promotion and attention so that becomes even more successful and sustainable.
“Think of it as an average Ethiopian person who wants to go to Ultra music festival or Sonar music festival; that person will need 200 Euros for tickets, around 700 Euros for flights, and other costs for accommodation and food; all this is possible if that person is able to get a travel visa in the first place.”
“The main thing behind BiRA BiRO for us was to give the youth that experience, here for a very affordable price. Luckily, we had a sponsor that believed in that dream, before that we went to every possible sponsor but they didn’t believe in it, they just didn’t think electronic music would do their brand any good, they would say it’s just going to be a waste of money and there won’t be a large crowd coming to see it and so on. But finally we found the right people that believed in us and we did it.”
“We made the price so cheap so that university students and others who are fans of the music would be able to come and enjoy it and it was a huge success and a reassurance for us to keep on doing what we were doing, keep on pushing and promoting. Thousands of people showed up,” Guta said.
For BiRA BiRO, thousands of people showed up, the way the event was organized was something that was considered to be the first in the country; both in genre and overall visual settings. The event gave a much deserved platform to amazing local producers such as Rophnan, and international artists such as Dutch DJ Quintino and Tom Swoon who has played at some of the biggest stages, including Tomorrowland and Ultra and opening tours for Avicii and Steve Aoki.
“Organizing it was extremely difficult, starting with getting the financial backing. For the artists, it’s an opportunity and adventure to come here and perform but that was also a struggle because to get to the artist, you don’t talk to the artist directly, you talk to a booking agent and we cannot pay premiums like they do in Europe where they pay between 200,000 to 300,000 Euros per show; we cannot afford that. So for them to say yes, you have to go through a lot of negotiation and so on. But the stars were aligned; we got the sponsor, we got the artists,” Guta said.
Since then, CHOO CHOO Promotion’s social media pages lit up with thousands of followers which Guta says will help him reach people much easier for his next BiRA BiRO event expected to be held in April this year.
Speaking on setting standards Guta states that BiRA BiRO needed to stand out in every way. “From a production point of view we needed to stand out and give the full festival experience through not only music but also visually it had to be exciting so we had to fly in people to work out the set up of the stage, build a big butterfly, do the projection mapping which was very eye-catching, it brought the whole stage to life and people are still talking about it, people are still saying it was up to standard, which is again, quite a reassurance for us to keep on trying harder,” he said.
Although at this point CHOO CHOO hasn’t decided on the frequency of the event; if they should make it once or twice a year. That will depend on what the people want.
While the promotion company was successful in organizing the BiRA BiRO festival, organizing such a large scale event has its own challenges.
“There is a lot of tax for the entertainment sector even though it makes the least money. We pay 15 percent VAT like everyone else but other than that there is a 10 percent added to it, which is a real problem for us. Let’s say you are expecting to have 5,000 people to come to your show and you want to get 5,000 tickets printed. They will just calculate how much money you will make when you sell 5,000 tickets and they tax you 10 percent before you even sell them, weeks before the event. After the event there is the 15 percent VAT and then at the end of the year again you have the profit tax. Add all that up and that is 55 percent tax,” Guta said. Finding a big venue as well as getting the necessary permits are some of the other headaches that continue to be a problem for the sector.
If these things were made easier, there is a huge possibility of bringing in millions of foreign currency in revenue for the economy as well as boosting the tourism sector.
“It’s a movement you cannot escape, it will get to you even if you don’t want to get involved. It is a sound that gets this generation and I am a part of it,” says Rophnan, a 27 year old music producer who has been playing sets for the past 8 years in different places in Addis Ababa. He says that one of the best things about electronic music is that you can fuse it with anything.
“As an Ethiopian, we all grew up listening to a lot of legendary artists, a lot of cultural sounds and so on. So I came up with an idea to mix all those sounds with electro music and come up with something that was not there in the industry; not just in this country but nowhere else in the world,” Rophnan says.
And so the producer spent countless hours into researching Ethiopian music, meeting up with many artists and sampling and writing his own music. As a teenager, in the beginning he was more into hip hop and reggae but once introduced to electronic music, he knew he had to work with that.
Currently working on his debut album, Rophnan says that while having a platform to perform is important, there needs to also be real artists; artists that follow their own sound, who are dedicated, who come up with new things.
“We need to have skills, at this point, I cannot ask for a platform because I think as artists we need to work on ourselves first. This DJ thing is not just new to us it is new to this world entirely and people are yet to believe in it. Most still think you just push a button and the music comes on and people just go crazy; there is no effort to it. But if you actually make something so special that makes people follow you and that helps people express themselves or gives them a voice, then you can have any platform you want because the power is in the people,” Rophnan says. He underlines that work ethics and dedication are both things that people need more of.
DJ St3v3 is another Ethiopian artist that currently resides in China studying for his bachelor’s degree. His career started when he began performing for school parties while still in high school and slowly started to get recommended for more events by friends.
Now currently working in MIAMI Club in Taiyuan, China, he has been able to do shows across Asia in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Korea.
“My experience so far in this Electronic Music scene is amazing that I am always happy that I became a part of it. I now have experience with doing over 100 shows in different clubs, cities and countries in just a year; as a start that was something crazy I never thought it will be real,” he says.
Although he is yet to perform a set of electro music in Ethiopia, St3v3 says that he is definitely looking forward to it.
“I have heard electro is becoming big in Addis, my friends tell me about the vibe there and I have also seen videos of some events online. It seems that there are a lot more people that are getting into this type of music and by the looks of it, it will grow very fast. That makes me really excited to go back home and perform,” he said.
There are currently a few other really good EDM DJs in Addis that are starting to pop out. Slowly, clubs, radio stations and other gatherings are catching up to the movement that is electro and joining the rest of the world in the lifestyle.
If it gets the right kind of support, there is no reason why Addis Ababa or Ethiopia will not be able to host a world class music festival that will put the country on the map of festival tourism. Globally musical festivals create a huge number of jobs, countless business opportunities for individuals and boost the hospitality sector as a whole.
“That is what I want to see. I want thousands or millions to fly to Ethiopia to be part of these festivals. I want it to become one of the major things the country is known for. I want BiRA BiRO to grow to that level; and it will. All stakeholders just need to work towards that,” Guta concludes.