written by Ya Mallen Jagne
It was 2007. Waagan had just come home from the USA, exuberant and optimistic. He met a hibernating music scene which Xmyls and the newly formed Black Lynx movement was trying to resuscitate through their gigs and radio show. Waagan and Xmyls met through DJ Pisces and worked together in the AfricAlliance crew, organizing club parties. Their conversations would constantly revolve around a common passion, music, Gambia – Gambian music and the creation of a platform where none existed. At the time, Xmyls had already begun to transform his radio show from a mostly American hip-hop show to a strictly Gambian music show. That was something, but that wasn’t enough. So they thought and they talked and they thought some more. By the end of 2007 they had it all laid out. They would hold their very first open mic event at the Christian Council Hall. News got out through radio, flyers, and text messages and by word of mouth.
On the night of November 16 2007, the energy was electric, the air throbbed with anticipation. No one was exactly sure what to expect, perhaps not even the organizers. This concept was relatively new to The Gambia, it was a hope-driven experiment. A line-up of 10 acts pumped full of raw talent and energy got up on stage that night – most of these were names that were only starting out but will eventually become names that will dominate the Gambian music scene in the years to follow.
The first Open-Mic event was beyond expectation, setting the pace for what was to come. It took off, bringing together young Gambian musicians, lovers of Gambian music and music producers every fortnight, for five months. Then it got even better. Open Mic moved into the streets of urban Gambia, setting up stages and propping up sound systems every month, in random neighborhoods in Fajikunda, Banjul, Brikama, Pipeline, Manjai, Talinding (and the place that just popped into your head).
This was like nothing ever seen before in The Gambia. It was a calculated step towards a greater vision – the annual “Open Mic Festival” (now compounded as OpenMicFest), a name which was settled on after much debate.
The first OpenMicFest happened on 26 November 2008. It brought together the best 10 acts from the previous open mic shows, sold over 800 tickets and left both the crowd and organizers hardly able to wait for the next one. In 2009, Jakaarlo, which had a 5000-person capacity, was so full that the crowd spilled out into the street. There were more people outside than inside the venue.
The next year, the festival was moved to the Independence Stadium, the only venue that could accommodate the rapidly growing Open Mic audience. The crowd hit 10,000 in 2012 and steadily grew each year after that, launching careers and forever changing the face of Gambian music.
In 2019, for the first time ever, the OpenMicFest opened its doors to international acts as an exchange platform (AfriCourage). This was made possible through partnership with the Goethe-Institut and brought in renowned musicians such as Baaba Maal, German composers Ensemble Moderne, Finnish duo Wimme and Rinne, Burkinabe HipHop artiste Smockey, Xuman & Keyti of Journal Rappe performing alongside Gambian artistes such as ST, Gee, Tata-Dinding, Jali-Madi Kanuteh, Killa-Ace, Jizzle and many others.
Yet another small step on the path of growth, an opening for Gambian Music industry to show itself off to the world.
This year’s festival will be different, as we, like the rest of the world, adjust to the special circumstances we find ourselves in. As you countdown with us to Open Mic 2020, stay healthy, watch out for your neighbor and listen to good music.