Dancing to a new beat
Director Toumani Sangaré and producer Alexandre Rideau discuss bringing the sounds of Afrobeat to music thriller Black Santiago Club, filming in Benin and breaking international boundaries with African drama.
The only African series to be screened at this year’s edition of French television festival Series Mania, Black Santiago Club blends a thriller plot with the sounds of Afrobeat to tell a story inspired by a legendary, real-life band.
Black Santiago was founded in 1964 by trumpeter Ignace De Souza and is one of the oldest musical groups still performing from the African continent, having pioneered Afrobeat music in the 1960s. The band now takes centre stage in this eight-part series commissioned by Canal+, which is set against the backdrop of the club in Cotonou, Benin, where the orchestra performs every night.
When a developer covets the land to build a marina, the family of eccentric musicians persists in thwarting his plans, led by club owner Antoine (Alougbine Dine), his brilliant saxophonist son Theo (Ismaël N’Diaye), and Sika (aka Grace, played by Emmanuella Salimath Tolli Toffa Atinouké), a young singer whose outstanding talent will bring a new meaning to her life as well as a second wind to the band.
The idea for the series emerged from creators Alain Patetta and Florent Mazzoleni’s ambition to preserve the legacy of Black Santiago’s renowned musicians and their influence and impact on African music.
They then discussed the project with director Toumani Sangaré, who has history working with music in documentaries and short videos. And having grown up listening to Afrobeat and salsa music with his father, Sangaré was immediately taken by the concept. “When they explained the project to me, I just said ‘Yes,’” he tells DQ.
“Choosing to work with Toumani came as early as we could when we started to work on this project,” says producer Alexandre Rideau from Keewu Production, which is based in Dakar, Senegal. “Toumani was the director we wanted to work with, and we shared the idea that this whole heritage in Africa is disappearing. Older musicians are dying. When you walk down the street and you discuss these musicians with people, nobody knows them, so we wanted to create an easy-going story full of drama as an opportunity to reintroduce this music to a younger audience and a public that is nostalgic about this music as well.”
Sangaré’s previous scripted credits include Senegalese series Wara, a political thriller, and crime drama Sahko & Mangane, about two mismatched cops tasked with working together to solve mysterious murder cases linked to the supernatural. Helming a series with music at its centre was “blissful, not to say easy,” he says, “but it was very exciting to create this universe.”
The demands of the project involved blending the show’s musical elements – and leaning on Sangaré’s experience creating music videos, in terms of lighting and editing techniques – with the thrilling dramatic story that unfolds over the course of the series.
“This is completely different [from my previous projects]. It’s the first time I have directed like this for a series, but I always want to challenge myself with new kinds of worlds and new styles of directing,” he says. “My first movie was an adventure movie, and I had a comedy TV show, so I always want to create something new, a new flavour, and not be put into a box.”
Directing alongside Tiburce Bocovo – who writes on the series with Patetta, Dalal Seck, Bouba Diop, Ange Régis Hounkpatin, Iris Ehrlich Tokouete and Lucrèce D’Almeida – Sangaré wanted the focus of Black Santiago Club to be on the family, which meant working with the actors who play the central characters to turn them into star musicians and performers.
Atinkouké plays Grace, a young woman who is desperate to learn the true identity of her parents after being raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle and who discovers her talent for singing is linked to the Black Santiago Club and its family of musicians. Meanwhile, gifted musician Theo (Ndiaye) descends into alcohol and drug problems after his great love disappears, leaving him at odds with his father Antoine (Dine), a once-brilliant musician who puts all his energy into saving the club and the orchestra from an unscrupulous promoter.
“The script was very good and we worked a lot with these three actors,” Sangaré says. “Emmanuella was not a singer, so we tried to help her be comfortable on stage and to move on the stage. Ismaël was not a saxophonist, so he had many lessons before shooting. Then Dine is a huge actor but he is used to the theatre, so we tried to reboot his mindset about how to act in a series.”
The project represented a landmark for African drama as the first major production to be made in Benin. Many actors, including Atinkouké, appear in their first screen roles, while more than 500 extras were cast to create the atmosphere inside the club, as well as other scenes at Dantopka Market, the largest open-air market in West Africa.
“Nobody has ever done what we’ve done in Benin. It was a great adventure,” says Rideau. “Benin is a territory for shooting great fiction. We had many assumptions and hypotheses that it would work smoothly, and it did. Maybe there’s not a lot of experience in Benin yet, but there is so much talent and so much will to do well. People are thirsty for production and good-quality productions. We had a young crew, but everyone wanted to learn and do their best. I’ve now shot more than 10 series in Africa and this is maybe one of the best atmospheres I’ve seen on a production so far.”
The music drama is now set to be screened in competition during Senegal’s Dakar Series Festival, which begins today and aims to go to the heart of Africa’s creative emergence. The event is backed by Keewu owner Mediawan Africa.
“We think all the stories we talk about are universal, and that’s what we want to create – something that can also be watched in Asia or America,” Rideau says. “That’s really the goal.
“We also have a huge challenge to be accepted in Africa, as sometimes people say series have an occidental point of view of our country. It’s a challenge for us to create series that are very attractive for African people, where they recognise the way they talk, the personification and the artistic direction we put on the main character, for example. And also to be accepted and be new and attractive in the rest of the world.”
Rideau and Keewu have also been involved in developing production talent in Senegal and Cotonou, training “hundreds of professionals” with whom the company and others are now working.
“Now that we have talent and we have know-how in terms of production, you’re going to see more and more TV series like Black Santiago coming from Africa and French Africa,” he continues. “There are already shows coming from Nigeria and Kenya, but from French-speaking Africa, beware. We are catching up and the gap is closing very quickly now.
“Our next goal is to break the ceiling – but we are not talking about production, we are talking about budgets, and what we are doing in a show like Black Santiago is a real challenge because we are producing with a very small amount of money.”
To that end, Keewu is building coproductions with international producers to raise bigger budgets for future television series, while always ensuring projects retain their African perspectives in order to appeal first and foremost to African viewers.
“I’m explaining to the coproducers, ‘You’re not coming to Africa to work with us to do an international coproduction, an English or French coproduction with some African talent. If you’re coming to work with us, you’re making a real coproduction that will help us promote the African point of view,’” Rideau says. “It’s coming together. Black Santiago is an important stepping stone but our intent is to go much further now.”
Sangaré adds: “Next time we come to Series Mania, we want to compete and to win.”
tagged in: Alain Patetta, Alexandre Rideau, Alougbine Dine, Ange Régis Hounkpatin, Black Santiago Club, Bouba Diop, Canal+, Dalal Seck, Emmanuella Salimath Tolli Toffa Atinouké, Florent Mazzoleni, Ignace De Souza, Iris Ehrlich Tokouete, Ismaël N’Diaye, Keewu Production, Lucrèce D’Almeida, Sahko & Mangane, Series Mania, Tiburce Bocovo, Toumani Sangaré, Wara