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Mental Well-Being Guaranteed – the Music in Africa Conference in Accra, Ghana

From 28-30 November 2019, the Music in Africa Conference for Collaborations, Exchange and Showcases (ACCES) took place in Accra, Ghana. Film composer Stephan Eicke reports on the event.

From 28-30 November 2019, the Music in Africa Conference for Collaborations, Exchange and Showcases (ACCES) took place in Accra, Ghana. As a partner of the Music in Africa Foundation, MediaSoundHamburg was present: a yearly summer school which aims to bring aspiring and established creative forces in music, sound design and foley together to exchange ideas and approaches over the course of several days. While the previous ACCES had been set up in Nairobi, Kenya, Accra proved a worthy choice and provided the experience of a lifetime. Film composer Stephan Eicke reports on the event.

In 2018, Achim Esser-Mamat, founder and director of MediaSoundHamburg (MSH), entered a partnership with Music in Africa, an organisation which, among other things, had set up ACCES, a yearly three day-event with the aim of supporting local musicians in various parts of Africa. The event involved invited guest speakers who talked about music production, together with networking events which enabled local musicians to meet influential music publishers, managers, agents and such like, and by presenting concerts which let original voices in the African musical world shine. 

Achim hosted an African Night in August 2018 as part of the annual MediaSoundHamburg event, and with that brought some African musical spirit to Hamburg. Moreover, scholarships were given to aspiring artists from Kenya and Ghana who wanted to partake in MSH and learn the skills taught there. Sadly, last year’s scholarship winner, Alice Ragoi, was unable able to get a visa to attend MSH (largely because of her strongly political song lyrics), but the collaboration between the two institutions remained strong, and Emmanuel Lantei Lamptey-Mills has been awarded the scholarship for MSH 2020.

These were already enough reasons for me to attend ACCES 2019 – notwithstanding my need to get away from home for a week! Like last year, as a representative for MSH, I had been asked to give a four-hour class on composing for film. What kind of fool would possibly reject such an offer?

ACCES 2019 was held at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences © Florian Mamat
ACCES 2019 was held at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences © Florian Mamat

Heated exchanges between musicians and label bosses

ACCES 2018 had been a success, both artistically in terms of the musical acts on stage during the showcases, and with regard to the number of attendees. Naturally, in 2019, there were parallels with the previous event. Streaming and royalties were a big topic, discussed in lively panels, often with heated exchanges between musicians and label bosses, with participants supported and challenged by members of the audience.

In another panel, local musicians were advised how to navigate the recording and distribution industries ‘in a changing environment,’ while in yet another discussion alternative music platforms were explored.

I, of course, talked about composing for film. (What else can I do? I am limited in my abilities!) And so I talked about the job of a film composer, warned the attendees about potential pitfalls of the job, and how they can keep their sanity as creatives in an environment with a fast turnaround with producers whose primary goal is to make as much money as quickly as possible.

I had never been asked questions like, ‘How can you compose happy music when you are sad?’

While there were only few changes in my presentation compared to last year’s version, the questions asked afterwards were very different, and indeed,  refreshingly so. Much to my surprise – and without being able to explain why – the musicians in the audience were more interested in the mental and emotional concerns of composing than in anything else.

In fact, I had never been asked questions like, ‘How can you compose happy music when you are sad?’ It is an essential, excellent question, though – as is ‘How do you gain confidence as a composer?’ and ‘How do you cope with the fact that sometimes a specific cue of yours is placed in an entirely different scene?’ I relished these questions because, as my friends know, I relish being in the position of a therapist – the wounded healer – who looks you in the eye and shares wisdom about how to cope with life.

Concentration is essential in terms of mental well-being

A beautiful facet of being a composer – especially for media – is that it requires the utmost concentration. (I am sure Gustav Mahler would have said the same about composing for the concert hall.)

Concentration is essential in terms of mental well-being. Imagine a boxer, wrecked with fear and anguish about the prospect of taking on a heavyweight champion in the ring. He might be fearful and nervous on his way to the ring, but as soon as he steps into it and gets ready to land the first punch the anxiety ceases — because it has to. The mind has to concentrate on the task ahead of it. And so it does focus, blocking out any anxiety that had plagued you just seconds ago.

The brain is amazing that way, and not an iota different from how it worked thousands of years ago when our predecessors encountered a wild bear in the woods. Just imagine running away from a bear. Believe me, in the act of saving your life, you certainly won’t notice how anxious and fearful you really are. The attention given to saving your life takes up all your concentration and energy.

Our fears about future prospects are always almost always worse than the actual task we are afraid of

That’s why in various mental health clinics drawing mandalas is a favourite for healers and patients alike – it focusses the mind. I recommend seeing composing for film, television, commercials or games like that. You have to focus on the task in front of you. You have to compose music, you have to pay attention to the image before your eyes, be aware of the timeframes, make sure your music works with the scene.

If that doesn’t give you enough to focus on, I am not sure what will. If you doubt you’ll be able to write happy music when sad, or vice versa, try to just sit down at the keyboard. Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches us that our fears about future prospects are always almost always worse than the actual task we are afraid of, a fact which leads straight to the second question about gaining confidence.

How do you gain confidence in life? By going out there. If you are afraid of water, jump into the water. If you afraid of spiders, take a spider into your hand. And then do it again. Over and over again, until you lose your fear. It’s not so bad after all, is it? The same goes for composing. Put in your 10,000 hours, just plough on, learn and grow and you will gain the confidence you need.

It’s not about you, it’s what’s best for the film

Now how do you cope with having a piece of your music placed in a scene where you didn’t want it to be? Just always remember that you are not writing for a concert hall. Everything you need to do is in service of the film. You are just a servant. It’s not about you, it’s what’s best for the film. I like to imagine these spiritual tips were helpful for the audience.

Participation in ACCES was, according to the organisers, a success. The team couldn’t hide its disappointment, though, about the biggest issue surrounding Music in Africa and its endeavours to support local artists: hardly any local artists attended. This was not wholly unexpected since this had already been the case last year, but it’s a strange and ultimately frustrating phenomenon that should be looked at carefully – though not necessarily by me, and certainly not to start pointing fingers at anybody.

The sad fact is that at ACCES 2019 there were more outsiders than Ghanaians, and this despite the fact that the event was free for locals and well publicised on radio, TV, on the internet. Although many locals registered via the website, hardly any of them showed up at the end. Sure, ACCES had the numbers (more than a thousand participants, more than 50 countries represented, more than 100 global industry players, more than 80 performers), but it leaves a sour taste that an event targeted at a specific group was hardly attended by that group.

Did local artists find ACCES too elitist?

One Facebook user gave an indication as to why this might have been the case, making this rather bitter comment: ‘Ask yourself whether any of you invited any music manager. You people have turned the music business like [an] occult society and keeps things to yourself then after you come out to say no music manager attended to suggest we are not serious people.’ And so on.

Did local artists in Accra and surroundings find ACCES too elitist, ‘like an occult society’? Or were they waiting for a personal, more targeted invitation, as the comment implies: ‘If we are of importance and interest am sure they will have look for us and give us invitation… when those same people come and looking for our content to use on their platforms to be rich and pay us chicken change they know where to find us yet when its comes to conference they claim they don’t know our offices.’

As mentioned before, ACCES is not a Ghanaian event — every year it takes place in a different African country. There might be the problem. Perhaps it is seen as ‘outside the bubble’, not something that can establish itself in the region over a period of time and win the trust of locals. Or I might be entirely mistaken. I can’t claim to know the answer. But it is intriguing to speculate, especially considering how closely knit the musical community in Ghana is, which is certainly how I have experienced it outside ACCES, with strongly connected musicians who support each other as brothers. ACCES, in comparison, feels like an intruding foreign body.

I, of course, love ACCES for various reasons. The highlights of last year’s event were the showcases each night, and this year was no different. Several popular and talented Ghanaian musicians were, after all, persuaded to attend the event and give concerts. Among these musicians was, much to our delight, Emmanuel, the young gentleman who had been awarded a scholarship to attend MediaSoundHamburg free of charge.

African pop music with Western influences made the audience jump up and dance as if there was no tomorrow

Emmanuel turned out to be so prolific and versatile that we spotted and heard him play guitar in no fewer than three different bands. What we heard on these three nights was astounding. African pop music with Western influences made the audience jump up and dance as if there was no tomorrow. Then two musicians with guitars sang us into a trance with their onomatopoeia, before funk and metal made the stage shake and a group, aptly titled FOKN Bois, made strong statements against the government’s law to punish homosexuality and therefore love between two – or more – people.

It was an ecstatic program over these three days and nights, and by the end we were left exhausted but content. A big round of applause should go to the organisers of ACCES, especially Eddie Hatitye and Claire Metais, who made sure that the whole organisation was running as smoothly as possible. Indeed, it ran more smoothly than last year—making sure everything works out as envisioned and without much delay always takes experience. Certainly a lot of experience was gained by everybody involved, and Achim and I are certainly not the only people looking forward to next year’s edition.

Header photo: FRA! from Ghana delivered an astonishing performance at ACCES 2019 (photo © Stephan Eicke)

About the author

Stephan Eicke giving a class on composing for film at ACCES 2019
Stephan Eicke giving a class on composing for film at ACCES 2019

Stephan Eicke worked as the editor-in-chief of the only European magazine on film music, Cinema Musica, for several years before he decided to found his own CD label, Caldera Records.

He has written the music for over 50 radio plays and recently finished The Struggle Behind the Soundtrack, his first book on film music, which was published in the US in 2019.