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Why Youssou N’Dour’s seedy club holds secret to riches for media chiefs

Wednesday November 14 2012

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

What will African journalists and media owners eat in future? Will the young males afford to pay bride-price? Will the ones with families be able to pay school fees?

Those were some of the questions being asked and discussed last week during the African Media Leadership Forum in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

Of course I have spiced the questions, because they were not framed that way. The conference was on the future of the African media; how new technologies are playing out; and the prospects for Mother Africa.

The answer came from a very unlikely place, far away from the conference hall. Dakar has several offerings for visitors. The ones who are steeped in history and want to shed a tear or two over the horrors of slavery, visit the slave house on Gorée Island.

The fast-food on-the-go visitor can check out the towering and controversial African Renaissance Monument. The ones who want to tune into the cultural pulse of Dakar go to Club Thiossane.

Part of the club’s reputation derives from the fame of its owner, the legendary Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour. The future of African media consumer, was on display in Club Thiossane last Saturday night.

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I had dropped in on the Renaissance Monument earlier, and we had made the emotional trip to Gorée Island early Saturday. We decided to close the circle by exploring why Thiossane was so famous.

The place was underwhelming — not the swanky joint we thought it would be. And it is not located in a fashionable area of Dakar either. It seems, however, that that is exactly its appeal.

As N’Dour’s fortune and fame grew, the man himself didn’t change much. He has left his club largely untouched, the seediness a statement about its roots and probably designed not to intimidate its working class fan base.

The dance area of the club is huge, about half of a tennis court, the biggest I have ever seen. Hundreds of people in outrageous dress and hairstyles kept streaming in. We stood by the fire exit, just in case.

The band took its sweet time to come on stage, but as soon as it opened, we saw an unusual sight. There was a mad rush by revellers to the edge of the stage where the band was raving up.

However, it was not to dance. They whipped out their mobile phones to record the band. Within about two minutes, there were over one hundred mobile phones held high either video-recording or taking rapid photos. This continued through to the second song.

The music was too loud for our East African ears and the place too packed, so we fled as the band plunged into the third song of the night.

It was remarkable. Young Senegalese, it seemed, no longer went to the clubs primarily to dance. They went there to interact and “dance” with friends outside the club!

You could see them stopping to work their phones, presumably writing updates on Twitter and posting photos on their Facebook and other social media pages. Because the chance of appearing on the Internet for every club-goer is now high, people dress to stand out.

Club Thiossane might be faded, but it doesn’t matter because that is not critical. What matters is the opportunity it gives the party crowd to get immersed, and share with their friends outside.

Now if you are a mainstream media house, your single weekly entertainment page can only cover a single club or event hours later. Your competition is thousands of revellers reporting instantly from ALL the clubs and entertainment instantly from every corner of the country.

The model of a few wise editors deciding what you read in the papers or see on TV is also under great test. The evolving approach is a democratic one where there are thousands and millions of editors putting material on the Internet.

And therein lies the second challenge for mainstream media. They need to be more diverse and offer a far greater range of perspectives than they have ever done. The present model is quite authoritarian and paternalistic.

Yet all this is good news for the African media. The market signal here is that people want more and better, not less. We can all grow very rich from doing that well.