Ben Lebrave, left, in Lomé, with a member of the group called Milenivo. “They mostly make ‘crunk’ style hip hop,” he tells me in an email.
Imagine getting off the airplane in Accra, Ghana and these are your directions:
“In west airport, ask for the north Dzorwulu (“djuwulu”) traffic light by the Fiesta Royale hotel. At that traffic light, there are women selling food, look for the place with the most people, where there are also taxis. There is a trotro station, tell the women you’re looking for sexy eyes, and tell her you’re looking for Kubolor, she’ll show you the way”¦”
These are the directions that Ben Lebrave has to guide him. Lebrave is a 30-year old French man currently living in Los Angeles who has just embarked on a month-long trip starting in Accra, Ghana, where he will meet with musicians like Kubolor and set-up partnerships to develop his budding record label, Akwaaba music.
Before he left in mid-April, I met up with Lebrave at a cafe in Venice Beach to talk about his previous three trips to Africa and his plans with this trip: to collect more music and set up recording partnerships with recording studios in Ghana. Lebrave launched Akwaaba Music in 2008, with one ultimate goal: “to make African music as easily available anywhere as any music.”
Lebrave, who has worked for Moonshine Music and Digital Media Group was inspired to set out on his own to create an African record label when he took a one-week trip to Ghana. He had realized that his job at Digital Media Group was about to be cut and was in search of exotic music, rather than the indie genre he’d been working with.
“The cabby from the airport starts talking to me,” Lebrave recalls. “The cabby tells me, “˜The hotel where you’re going is not so great. Why are you here? You want to hear music?’ Then, he takes me to a place with a crazy base sound system.”
“Being in a place with blasted loud music was so refreshing,” Lebrave remarks, as a contrast to his experience as a DJ in Los Angeles where he had to obey a restrictive rules with regards to curfew and noise.
“It’s poor – a couple plastic tables, fridges, a couple subwoofers (a little soundsystem) – but much more interesting than what I had heard in hip hop or reggaeton, with distinctly Ghanaian chords.”
In 2006, Lebrave appeared in a Big Mac commercial and he used the $35,000 he earned from that commercial to strike out on his own and fund future trips to Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, and Angola.
He says that his relationship with Akwaaba and love of travel gives him a more in-touch approach to bringing African music across the Atlantic.
“There’s a growing interest in Africa but no one goes. Even people in South Africa don’t go and fly to Africa to meet with musicians on their turf,” he says.
Author John Collins reported in 2000 that so-called “world” music amounted to 14 percent of global record sales and that African music is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. market, increasing about 40 percent per year since 1995 (“The Generational Factor in Ghanaian Music” p.72.).
But Lebrave isn’t sure how the importation of music from Africa to America officially translates into the official fair trade label. He says this concept is called “equitable trade” in French. However, “Fair Trade” is applied to paying people a decent wage, but in his case he is sharing ownership of right to an artist’s music.
When he launched Akwaaba and told people it was a fair trade label, people thought he was using the label as an excuse to compensate for mediocre music.
“They’d come back to me and say, “˜Dude I thought your music was fair trade. It’s actually pretty good.'”
“No standards have been developed for music,” David Funkhouser of TransFair USA wrote in an email to me. “TransFair USA has ownership rights to the phrase “Fair Trade Certified” and they certify products (coffee, tea, chocolate, flowers, olive oil, etc.) for which standards have been established.”
Lebrave says that in standard music industry contracts, the royalty rates are 10 percent, but with Akwaaba, he pays the artists 50 percent of the profits using Western Union, since most artists don’t have a bank account.
In November 2008, Lebrave put out Akwaaba’s first compilation. The second compilation came out in February 2009, and since then he’s released one compilation per month.
According to an Internet statistics site, the Akwaaba website currently has about 3,000 views per day. Since January of 2010, Lebrave has sold 1,000-3,000 songs per month, mostly on iTunes, and is increasingly selling directly off BandCamp for a dollar per song. “Just A Band” a Kenyan group, accounted for nearly half of those sales. “Another slightly more glorious amount,” he points to, is a recent deal where a TV show will pay $3,500 for a song by Iba Diabate.
Lebrave writes from Ghana today of one of his first meetings, with Panji of Pigen Music, “he considers that taking an African artist and modifying his sound to appeal to a specifically western audience is doomed for failure. We couldn’t agree more!”
To keep up with Lebrave’s blog and his latest beats, you can check out: www.akwaabamusic.com. One of my personal favorites is “Sunrise” by Just A Band, with a hushing, sexy and mellow melody set over a clucking of background percussion that carries the song’s current.