How a new festival is connecting Berlin and Africa in spite of pandemic

How a new festival is connecting Berlin and Africa in spite of pandemic
Wapani playing live. Photo: Katja Mann
With a return to live events still uncertain, the Panafrican Festival is pressing ahead to support Black and African culture in the capital.

Music has been part of Mick Nahimana’s life ever since his father named him after Mick Jagger.

“My father is an old-school, icon Burundian musician,” Mick told The Local. “Everybody knows him.” He grew up in the capital, Bujumbura, to the sound of blues guitar and his father’s band rehearsing. 

When it came to pursuing his own career, Mick realised he loved connecting people.

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“Music, art in general, it's a tough area,” he says. “You really need to be at the right place at the right time, and meet the right people.”

He saw a role for himself in helping make that happen for others, and set up Mimosa Booking after moving to Berlin in 2015. 

READ ALSO: What does live music in Germany look like in the times of Covid?

“Now I'm here, maybe I can be the bridge from Africa to Europe, and Europe to Africa.”

Scheduled for summer 2020, his most ambitious project yet was to be the Panafrican Festival. In partnership with Julie Gossart of Sabobe, they dreamed up a plan to transform Richardplatz in Berlin’s Neukölln district with art, music and culture from all over Africa.

They wrote a business plan, brought sponsors onboard, and began to book musicians and apply for visas.

Then COVID-19 struck. One of the festival co-organisers got stuck in Zanzibar. Then the sponsors left. “We had to cancel everyone,” Mick sighs. He also lost his side job at a start-up company, which folded. 

Yet, like many who have been affected by COVID, Mich and the team behind the Panafrican Festival are persevering.

After some soul-searching, Mick and Julie decided to go ahead with the Panafrican Festival 2020, on a smaller scale and with a new start date on September 1st.

“I remembered how I was doing things in Burundi, I used to organise a lot of events with zero budget,” Mick says. “Now it's a baby. It's a pilot festival.”

The program has been scaled back but the festival retains the original aim, of bringing the music, film, books and art of Africa to the heart of Neukölln.

There is however still no guarantee the festival will be able to take place. Much depends on developments over the coming days.

“We put a lot of energy, now we're putting in our own money, even though we're not making any, so I guess we have to make it,” Mick says. “It has to be beautiful.”

The impact of COVID-19 on musicians

For musicians, artists and all the other creatives in Berlin, 2020 has been brutal. Lockdown brought live events to a standstill, and it is only gradually that these restrictions are being lifted.

Current guidelines put a limit of 500 for indoor events and 1,000 for outdoor events.

Uncertainty lingers, however, as infections rise across Germany and Europe. 

“I started watching news, I never watched news but now I do,” says singer and musician Emily Insiful. She has been hoping to hear news of more state support for artists, to follow up on the Soforthilfe II program, which made emergency cash available to freelancers and self-employed. 

The program ended in May and has been followed by another program of Überbrückungshilfe (interim aid) for the summer months, with applications open until the end of August.

Like most artists, Emily faces grave uncertainty because of the pandemic. Her contract for a musical production, slated for nearly 100 shows across Germany, was cancelled after only two performances.

She later learned the cast has been replaced with a cheaper one for next year. “There was a month where I didn't know how to pay my rent, so I really really need it,” she says.

Part of the problem, for her, is that musicians are not adequately paid for their work. With no income from live performances, streaming services do not offer sustainable income: On an album which cost her €10,000 to make, she has only received €30 back via Spotify. “

We all listen to music,” she argues. “If there was no music, what would we do, what would we be? We need it. So let's treat it as that.” 

For Emily, this precariousness has been compounded by her experiences as a black woman and her failure to fit mainstream molds. A potential manager loved her voice but complained her ‘optic’ did not fit. “There is a certain pain that comes with growing up in this country as a black person, and also as a musician,” she says.

As well as calling for more space to talk about these issues, she has focused on becoming self-reliant. “You have to make your own way,” she says.

She taught herself music production and, rather than live stream, she has been singing out in the warm weather on Alexanderplatz. “It's so fulfilling and these days, seeing people's eyes, they're really hungry for live music.” 

The Panafrican Festival 2020: pilot edition

For Mick, there is something vital about African music that people want to hear. “It's something different, you know. We got our own traditional instrument, our own way to dance, our African vibe is way too shiny, too beautiful.” 

The decision to go ahead with the Panafrican Festival was not easy, and a stringent hygiene concept will be implemented to ensure performances can happen safely. This means limiting attendance numbers to the live concerts and the literary evening.

Other events will happen via video link, projected into the festival’s main venue, Pan Africa Restaurant

Photo: Sarah Rechbauer

Emily is delighted to be taking part. “I feel like there's a place for me there, and I'm not a stranger, I feel like I fit with my music and I fit with everything that I am, and I can hopefully bring joy to the people.”

Doubassin Sanogo is also looking forward to performing. “Playing to an audience makes me happy because it nourishes the music,” he says. “If there is no audience, we still play, but an audience is always good.” 

Born in Burkina Faso, he is now based in Wolfsburg. He is known for playing a range of traditional instruments (including balafon, djembé and ngoni), which he also makes by hand, repairs and teaches.

For him, the festival is a chance to promote the arts and culture of Africa with his group Wapani, which blends traditional West African sounds with jazz, blues und reggae. 

“If we are somewhere the people need to shout and dance, we play faster music that lets them shout and dance,” he says. “If the audience is quiet and wants to listen, we play them melodies and gentler songs, not fast but which they can listen to without hurting their ears.” 

He also recognises the risks the festival organisers are taking on. “It’s courageous, and may that courage continue, so that the festival is a success and so that next year, it is already ready.”

Even for those unable to be in Berlin, the festival represents a way to connect from afar. Umuhire Isakari (a.k.a Muntu621) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Rwanda. His work will be exhibited at Pan Africa Restaurant and, via video link, he will do a painting in real-time for an audience.  

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“I’m not going to be there in person to experience how it’s coming to life,” he says. “But I think it’s a platform to start conversations, to kind of unify Africans living on that continent or Berlin, to think of the future. That’s what I’m hoping for.” 

The pandemic has made art materials harder for him to access in Rwanda, and during lockdown he has been unable to work outside on public murals, his preferred medium.

“I think there’s something special about walls,” he says. “They can house us inside. But once you’re inside, it can also limit or push away a friend or another person who wants the shelter. Even your friend or your family.”

He does not want to complain, however. “This is happening to every being on the earth. Except for maybe the animals in the jungle.” Art brings challenges but it is a path he has always been on. “An artist is an artist,” he smiles.

It is for artists, and their audiences, that the festival organisers are hoping they can make a safe space to meet again after months of hardship and anxiety. 

“The festival itself is to see many, many faces of the brothers and sisters from Africa, getting together for unity,” says Mick. “We need people from all over the world, come to see the talent of the artists.”


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