For Peter Ssebandeke and his eight-member troupe, the new year starts not in January but in March. From November to February, the Ugandans – three women and six men – cool their heels back home, waiting for spring to arrive in China and banish the freezing cold.
Then it’s time for them to fly to Beijing and start working. Work means performing tribal and traditional dances to the accompaniment of African drums at World Park in Beijing, a popular holiday destination sporting replicas of famous global landmarks, from the pyramids to the Taj Mahal. Ssebandeke was a struggling church performer enacting the Gospels at Kampala’s churches when a friend, back from Beijing, told him there was a market for African performers in China. So in 2007, Ssebandeke, then 29, arrived there on a tourist visa.
He toured different provinces, performed in clubs and made contacts. That’s how he landed the gig at World Park two years later, which meant a steady contract. The African dancers are one of the biggest draws in the park. Chinese visitors love taking selfies with them. In summer, the heat becomes unendurable but Ssebandeke is stoical.
“We are used to it,” he says, mopping his brow. “We are here to entertain. In Uganda, the biggest problem is lack of jobs and the low income. We have to look for greener pastures.”
African performers are increasingly aware of the potential of the growing Chinese market. According to PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwCs) China Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2016-2020, China’s entertainment and media industry is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 8.8% from 2016-2020, compared to global growth of 4.4%.
In 2016, the value of China’s entertainment and media sector was estimated at $190.56bn. In 2017, it is forecast to go up to $209.5bn. The port city of Guangzhou in south China is uniquely placed to catch a slice of all that action. It is the Chinese city with the largest population of West Africans, including small traders, shopkeepers, restaurateurs and aspiring hip-hop and reggae artists who look to the diaspora for sustenance.
This is where Nigerian aspirant Santy has released his latest music video Amara, Ugandan dancer-musician Grace Nakimera has flown in to perform at the D8 Show Bar on a Friday evening, and local hip-hop star Dibaocha, also from Nigeria, set down roots by marrying a local woman. To widen the entertainment market, the Chinese government is promoting cultural industries with new policies and initiatives and many African artists are benefiting from the policies targeted at African countries.
Since 2002, the China Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School has been training foreign students. Over 90% of them are Africans, and most of them on Chinese government scholarships. Then there is the Shaolin temple in central China, the inspiration for umpteen martial arts films, where African students learn wushu and other Chinese martial arts from monks, also under scholarships. Luc Bendza is arguably the most famous African martial arts star in China.
He ran away from home in Gabon as a teenager and eventually landed in the Shaolin temple. He was spotted by a talent scout and since then has acted in a stream of martial arts films. Bendza’s rise is best indicated by the documentary made about him. Gabonese director Samantha Biffot’s The African Who Wanted to Fly received the Special Jury Award at Gabon’s 10th International Documentary Film Festival in 2015 and will be shown at the Beijing International Film Festival in 2017.
Bendza has graduated into a Sino-African cultural envoy, popularising Chinese martial arts in Gabon and Tunisia. Married to a Chinese woman and fluent in Mandarin, he calls China his home. “My dream is to get more involved in a lot of projects between China and Africa and to let both cultures know each other deeper and better,” Bendza told state-run CCTV. Cameroonian Simon Abbe is another celebrity.
The 33-year-old’s China connexion started in 2005 when Cameroon and China agreed on cultural cooperation and Chinese instructors were sent to rebuild the National Ballet of Cameroon. Three years later, Abbe, the star of the ballet, was asked to perform at the Africa Night event at the end of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Since then Abbe, who now has his Abbe Dance Company in Beijing while he performs between China, France and Cameroon, has been a regular performer at most dance festivals in China.
Tapping the potential
However, while the Chinese audience likes the beat and energy of African dance and music, especially because of the exotic appeal, there are difficulties in establishing a stronghold in the Chinese entertainment industry. “Getting a work permit is very difficult,” Abbe says. “Even if you get permanent residence, you may not get a work permit. So we have to depend on performing by invitation.”
Samantha Sibanda, founder of the Appreciate Africa Network (AAN) NGO in Beijing, sounds despondent about the prospects of African artists in China, though she pulled off an organisational coup in November when she managed to bring legendary Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi and his Black Spirits band to Beijing for a two-day show.
“The China market definitely has potential but I would say we have not been able to really tap it yet,” the 36-year-old Zimbabwean says. “The Mtukudzi show cost a lot of money. Besides the fee, we had to pay for their flights and hotel stay and we had no corporate sponsor. We bore the expenses ourselves so that we could raise AAN’s profile in China.”
AAN’s flagship projects are the annual Miss Mama contest held among African students in China and the Miss Plus Size International pageant, that is open to non-Africans as well. Both the events are a platform for African designers, musicians and choreographers.
“But we struggle to get sponsorships for these too,” Sibanda says. “Some companies give gift vouchers for the winners but that’s all.”
However, while commercial success remains a moot point, the influence of African artists on China is slowly being acknowledged. There are articles galore written about them, television programmes, and even a documentary, China Remix, all of which acknowledge the community as Africa’s cultural ambassadors.