It’s been hard to reach Benoît Fader Keita, aka Beni Fadi, in his small town of Bandafassi, 700 km south of Dakar. The winter rains have taken their toll on his phone, and it’s only when he’s at home with his wife (and the network isn’t acting up) that we can find him, if he’s not off fishing or looking after his animals that is. When we finally get a signal, he’s just come back from a night out catching catfish in the marshes nearby.
Welcome to the Bédik family
Benoit belongs to the Bédik people, Senegal’s smallest and probably least-known ethnic group, who once lived on rocky hills reminiscent of the cliffs in Mali’s Dogon country. Indeed, it is said that it was from this region that the Bédik came, fleeing fighting by taking refuge in these hard-to-reach, cave-pierced hills. But with the passage of time and the attraction of the cities, their original culture has been diluted and now is at risk of disappearing altogether. According to Benoît, at most only 3,000 people still speak the language. More and more young people who have left for the cities no longer master it, and have even less knowledge of all the ceremonies, songs and dances, as well as tales and legends, that make up their rich heritage. Even more impactful than the call of modernity is the increasing scarcity of water in the hills that has gradually driven the inhabitants down to the plains. In Benoit’s village, Ethiouaard, there already wasn’t any school, pharmacy, or store… but when the water ran out, life there became just too difficult.
Benoît left to study English in Dakar, and it was there that he realized just how unknown the Bédik people were. With his surname, Keita, people took him for a Malinké, or a Bambara, or a Socé. But when he talked about the Bédik, nobody knew… So he decided to put all his energy into making his people known and recognizing their existence, and at the same time, trying to make the young people back home proud of their own culture. But how to get these messages across to the general public? Music, which he had played for fun in high school, became an obvious choice. And so he gathered some instrumentals from the Internet and began laying down his lyrics in Mënik (the Bédik language). A coupé-décalé-style track made him a household name back home. But he wanted to go further, and said to himself, “If I made a film, maybe people could follow it on the internet or on TV, and then people would wonder: who are these people?” So he moved on from English after his degree, took a course in video production and editing, and applied to the Dakar TV channel DTV, where he was hired as an editor to go and film Gamond, a traditional Bédik ceremony that takes place in May, at the end of the dry season. Equipped with a professional camera, he hopped on a bus and traveled across Senegal to capture the ritual. He trained his team on the spot, asking the young villagers to hold the microphone or point the reflector. “The people were proud that it was a local boy making this film, and proud to participate,” he explained. On his return to Dakar, he edited the film and had one of his journalist colleagues record the voice-over. The finished film was broadcast on DTV, the channel he works for, and can still be seen on YouTube.
Some time later, Kalito, a singer friend of his from Bassari country (the Bassari are one of the neighboring peoples of the Bédiks in southern Senegal) came across the film and asked Benoît to shoot his video. Kalito had no money to set up a crew, but Benoît agreed anyways and the two of them set off to Bandafassi and the mountains of Bedik country to shoot with a simple camcorder. It was at this point, in December 2020, that Benoît crossed paths with a Swiss man based in Dakar, who had come to discover Bedik country during a vacation. He stopped off at Bandafassi’s only tourist accommodation, run by Benoît’s sister. The traveler was none other than Cortega, DJ, producer and founder of the ElectrAfrique collective. “On the first or second night, I see this young guy directing a music video and he tells me about his approach,” recalls Cortega, who invited him to the ElectrAfrique evenings in Dakar. The DJ had an idea in the back of his head: if Benoît was up for it, he would propose a collaboration with electro producers who would bring “electro music to give it visibility, and he would bring his culture and language, his vision, to make a joint project.” It would take some time, but the seeds of Beni Fadi’s first EP had just been sown.
Cortega contacted his friends from the Berlin collective Rise, in particular Walter Griot and Hyenah, who accompanied him on a residency in Bandafassi to work with Benoît, producing beats that incorporate musical elements drawn from mënik culture. Then it was on to Dakar, and Deedo Studios, with the same team augmented by Senegalese producer Passa Beatz. And to crown the end of this collective work and the forthcoming release of Béni Fadi’s album, a tour was organized. It obviously began in Bandafassi, because as Benoît explains, “Before you can make a name for yourself elsewhere, we have to make a place for you at home, in your family.” Footage of this first concert is featured in a documentary entitled Beni Fadi, maintain the mënik flow, directed by Audy Valera & Mao Sidibé.
The film, a large part of which takes place in Bédik country, traces Benoît’s fight for the survival of his culture, his encounter with Cortega, Walter Griot and Hyenah, and then, after Bandafassi, moves on to Dakar, where Beni Fadi and his entourage perform on the roof of Espace Trames, during a very special ElectrAfrique evening. Benoît, who used to search for his instrumentals on Youtube, relying on fashionable genres to get his message across, is convinced: “Electro is universal. It’s not always easy to sing mënik to it, but it leaves no one indifferent…. in Dakar, Paris or Berlin, it’s extraordinary to see people moving even without understanding the lyrics.” Beni Fadi’s first international tour included stops in Berlin and Paris, heralding the release of his Farkoko EP on Rise Music in autumn 2022.
The international media, from the Washington Post to the Guardian, Courrier International, RFI and France 24, are telling the story of a man who refuses to see his language and culture die, and who has become its ambassador through music. His message has begun to spread, and Benoît and the Bédik people can only be proud. But back home, reality is more bitter.
Back to the foothills
While he was on tour, Benoît was replaced as editor at DTV, where no one expected to see him again after he left for Europe. He returned to Bandafassi, where many also thought he was crazy, for who would return from “Eldorado” without having made a fortune? Many acquaintances he hadn’t heard from in the past began to call on him, as he had become “a boss”. And yet… Benoît didn’t get rich – that wasn’t the aim of this tour. “I’m not fighting to be famous, not to have something for myself,” he insists. He’s been through some tough times, but he’s picked himself up and developed a small transport business with a three-wheeled motorcycle, raising animals whose meat sells well. “I can stay here at home, in the depths of Senegal, and I can be rich by doing a lucrative business. I want to have my own farm, be independent and try to create jobs.” As for his music, it will always help him get his message across. He continues to play, unpaid, in the villages of the region and writes new texts, recording them on his phone and then reworking them at home.
“I’m not giving up,” asserts Benoît. “If I ever give up, my fight will have been reduced to nothing.” When the time and finances come, he’ll go back to Dakar to record. At 37, he has plenty of time ahead of him. It’s not for nothing that he named his EP Farkoko, “the chameleon”. The animal is certainly a totem among the Bédiks, known for its adaptability and incessant color changes. Above all, it embodies prudence, as it moves forward slowly, taking a step after checking two or three times that it will stay on its branch. Far from those who seek quick success and easy but ephemeral money at all costs, Beni Fadi and his fight are for the long haul. And that’s just what the Bédik deserve, if their culture and language are to live on.