Was the recent visit by American ragga star Shaggy (Orville Richard Burell) an indication that Kenya is once again an attractive stage for live performances by international stars? Well, opinion is divided. Some music industry observers say that unlike the late '80s and '90s, hosting an international musician is no longer any promoter's cup of tea.
They say that the recent Shaggy show cannot match his Boombastic tour in2002 in terms of fan response, prestige and media hype and, many of those who attended the recent show at the Carnivore say it didn't live up to its expectations.
"In addition, it was quite odd for a musician of Alicia Keys stature to come into the country and just stay away from her fans completely," notes Freddie Daddy (Marlon Fredrick) of Shashamane International Africa Crew, a deejaying, artiste promotion and event organisers outfit.
Alicia's visit to Kenya early this year was strictly a charity affair. Not even the press was granted audience with her. Her fans were certainly disappointed.
First stop in their African tours
Kenyan music lovers will remember with nostalgia the by-gone years when the likes of American rap quartet Lost Boyz, rapper Coolio, Jamaican ragga singer Shabba Ranks, American R&B crooner Barry White, American-based Japanese jazzist Sadao Watanabe and Congolese lingala maestros Tabu Ley, Kanda Bongo Man and Koffi Olomide had made Kenya their dancing stage. It was their first stop for all their African tours.
Then, the musicians would visit Kenya while their careers were at peak. Not when gradually fading from the global stage. To put this into context, hosting Coolio in the late 1990s was akin to having 50 Cent perform today. Consider the Lost Boyz's 1998 tour. It happened when their albums, Peace Love and Nattiness and Music Makes Me High were topping international charts.
The late Barry White, described affectionately as "Walrus of love" and "The man with the velvet voice", performed at Safari Park's Sting Club in the mid 1990s. His best selling album The Icon of Love was released at around the same time, concurrently with Polygom Record's compilation of his All Time Greatest Hits.
"These artistes cost an arm and a leg to bring here," says DS Njoroge, the promoters who brought nearly all these big names to Kenya. "It would cost almost a million dollars to bring people like Beyonce, 50 Cent, Usher or Eminem."
Two years ago, he says, he contacted rapper Eminem's agents in the US for a possible East African tour. The quotation? "The performance fee alone was $300,000 (about Sh21 million). When I added the other expenses, such as air fare, accommodation, logistics and taxes, and tried to translate the final figure into Kenya shillings, my calculator could not cope."
He says that besides the high performance fees demanded by these international artistes, the taxes charged are exorbitant. A musician and each of his band members must have a special pass, issued by the government at a cost of Sh12,500 per head. The promoters are also charged a foreign artiste withholding tax, which is 20 per cent of what they make. Add 16 per cent VAT on the airline tickets plus a two per cent charge on the gate takings to the Music Copyright Society and the promoter is "left with very little or nothing."
As a 20-year veteran in the music industry (he received a presidential award for long-service last year), DS says that signing up artistes only for them to fail to turn up can be very disappointing for a promoter. He has had his fair share.
In 1993, Jamaican Shabba Ranks was scheduled to perform twice at Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi. He was flying from Zimbabwe for the first show on a Thursday evening and another the following day.
"He overslept and missed the flight," recalls Njoroge. "When he finally arrived on Friday, newspapers had already splashed headlines of his missed show. Some fans who had bought advance tickets demanded a refund. I had to take to the stage and explain." The show was held on Saturday.
Again, when the Lost Boyz were en-route Nairobi, Njoroge says, they got lost on their connecting flight from New York. Though scheduled to perform on a Friday, they didn't arrive till that Saturday. The Boyz first went to Tanzania and performed in Kenya on a Monday.
"After the August 7, 1998 terror attack on Kenya ," Mr Njoroge adds, "LL Cool J who we had booked to perform, cancelled his trip. His agents informed me that he had been signed for a movie. Of course, the movie became a priority."
While Njoroge's disappointments were due to faults on the part of the artiste, promoters have also shot themselves in the foot. Two years ago, reggae group Mighty Culture shunned a planned show at the Coast citing poor organisation. The Joseph Hill-led reggae group, reports Shashamane International in their website, left the country in a huff, following a mix-up which saw the concert cancelled at the last minute.
There was confusion too as to whether Culture's second show (after a Nairobi one) would be staged in Kisumu or Mombasa. "First, it was Kisumu, then suddenly the destination changed to Mombasa," Dennis Wright, the group's promoter is quoted as saying in the website.
The Nairobi event was also marred by claims of collusion between bouncers, police officers, ticket clerks and other gatekeepers who were selling parallel tickets at half price. Only about 7,000 fans turned up for the concert at Nyayo Stadium, compared to the previous year’s 45,000.
Promoters doubling the real cost
The event, as is sadly the case with most reggae concerts, was marred by unruly behaviour by some fans. This, Sashamane acknowledges in its website, forces promoters to shy away from hosting international acts in Kenya. "Most promoters are doubling the real cost to host such acts."
They attribute this to "negative feedback and high risks" that amount from failed shows.
Glen Washington's tour last year nearly became a replica of this. This September, Israel Vibrations is expected to grace the Summerfest at a yet-to-be decided venue.
DS says that international artistes prefer dealing with established local promoters, since they are concerned about their security. But even then, there had been incidents of the stars losing priceless items.
"When the Lost Boyz went to Tanzania, Mr Cheeks was greeting the fans from stage when he lost his gold wedding ring in the process. Now, he keeps telling me to do whatever I can to ensure he gets it back, even if it means consulting the best witch doctor in Africa."
Ragga singer Sean Paul too has fallen victim to sticky-fingered fans. During his Ever Blazing Tour two years ago, his first in Africa, he lost a prized mobile phone. The loss was particularly painful for him since it contained songs that were yet-to-be released, it was reported then. On learning of its loss soon after arriving in Tanzania after a show in Kenya, Sean Paul was said to have been so angry that he didn't even waive back at adoring fans who had gathered at the airport in in Dar es-Salaam.
DS believes that even with these incidents, Kenya is still attractive spot for many international artistes. He says that unprofessional players in this business, "some who have never even promoted a birthday party," are soiling the reputation of the industry.
He dismisses claims that promoters fail to remit the earnings by artistes as per the contractual agreements. To have a musician come to here to perform, the tour promoter has to pay the agreed performance fee up front. The money is deposited with the artiste's management agents in America and released to the artiste as soon as he completes his tour.
"I still believe this industry is vibrant and people can make money as long as its run professionally," Njoroge opines. "There is also a lot of corporate mileage to be made by companies through sponsoring these tours."