Modibo Keita: The Journey of a Black Canadian Artist and Creative Entrepreneur
by Robert Flis / March 2, 2021
The Sincop8ed Noize Foundation is concluding the second edition of its Music Industry Talks series with a Montreal-born musician and entrepreneur who has taken the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and turned them into profitable business ventures. Through his work as a professional trombonist, Modibo Keita has toured the world and worked with countless internationally respected artists. Keita is also the founder and artistic director of the Montreal based concert series The Shed, which has quickly become one of the fastest growing in Montreal. More recently, Keita has unveiled his clothing line of Afrocentric outerwear called FAMA DEN set to be released in 2021. We are honoured to have the pleasure of interviewing him about these projects and more.
His beginning as a musician
“Basically, for me it was the typical story,” says Modibo of his introduction to music. “I started playing music in high school. I don’t really come from a musical family by any means, but I always had an interest in music, so I was really into it despite the fact that I wasn’t playing yet.” When Modibo got to high school he started learning classical music, and because he was already a fan of hip hop and jazz, he was constantly looking for ways to incorporate these influences into his playing. Around the same time, Modibo started venturing out into the live scene and checking out groups who would eventually take him under their wing. “Since I was 12, these guys gave me the opportunity to play with them,” he says. “So I grew through them. They fostered me from a very young age until I officially went to study music, but that was kind of my training ground for improvised music and hip hop. I got my musical identity together through that practice.”
“Musically speaking, I wanted to be a trumpet player,” Modibo says, thinking back. “The trumpet is the instrument that really drew me towards music.” However, when it came time to choose instruments in his music class, Modibo’s teacher encouraged him to pick up the trombone instead. Realizing that nobody else wanted to play it, Modibo picked the trombone, and although it took him a little while to get into it, he eventually developed a passion for it that continues until this day. “In terms of how I see myself being a musician, my biggest inspiration is [Montreal musician] Vox Sambou,” he continues. “At around age 11, I was living in a really tough neighbourhood, he saw that I was playing music, and he took me to all these places and put me in rooms around people that gave me the tools to become the person that I am today. I think that’s just the bottom line, and until this day I still look up to him.”Modibo credits having great mentors for helping him achieve all that he’s accomplished in music and business alike. Having the opportunity to learn from world-renowned musicians provided him with such a solid foundation, that he took the same approach when developing his business skills. “I’ve been lucky to be at the right place at the right moment around the right people,” he says.
His musician genres
Modibo’s path to playing jazz music was rooted in the classical music he studied first in school. “Through jazz education you’ve got to do the classical thing for a bit,” he explains. “Classical is an easier way to build your technique because jazz can get pretty deep sometimes. I’m not trying to shoot down classical music but I think there’s a process that’s institutionally built to learn through classical, and jazz music is not really taught like that. Jazz is like ‘we’re gonna toss you in the fire and you better stay alive.’ The approach is really different because culturally that’s not how you teach jazz. You don’t teach jazz by starting with a piece that’s really easy, we give it to you right away, and then you’ve got to figure out a way to make it work.”
The beginnings of The Shed
Modibo describes The Shed as having started as an accident. One day, internationally respected bass player Rich Brown was in town and Modibo simply wanted an occasion to hear Rich play. Friends of his offered to let him put on a show in their loft and things started to snowball from there. “It was meant to be a one-off,” Modibo explains. “But it worked out so nice that all the guys were like: you got to do this again.” He started planning more shows, each one happening in a pop-up venue announced shortly before the concert. “It could be an art gallery, it could be a loft, it could be a residence,” he continues. “But we transform it for that night into a venue.” Their third event was when Modibo felt it really started to become a big thing. By that time, it had already built an established clientele and were attracting international artists, which lead to a deal with Red Bull. Unfortunately, the pandemic put the entire live music scene on hold, but The Shed became such a success that it led to other opportunities that Modibo has been able to continue developing throughout the pandemic. One of those projects has been Re Up Re Up, which came about when one of Modibo’s old teachers reached out to him during the pandemic. He had seen what Modibo had done with The Shed and wanted to put together something similar to raise funds for projects and showcases. They began pre-recording concerts and other kinds of content, and uploading them each week for their growing audience. “We want it to be a resource for musicians and non-musicians,” says Modibo. “There’s no other platform out there that makes having access to these people so easy.” The importance of these projects extends beyond just building successful businesses. There’s also a deep connection to honouring and promoting black musicians and artists. “It’s not really about how I identify,” Modibo explains. “It’s really about what the roots of the music are. It’s about staying true to the tradition.”
Modibo looks at developing relationships within the music community as a long term strategy and it’s something he’s been doing for years without even realizing it. All the mentors and people he worked with as he was studying and learning to play, have become the foundation for his network. He used these relationships to start The Shed, and from there was able to expand his reach outward. “When you book, you need to have a booking strategy the same way that when you sell something you need to have a marketing strategy,” he explains. "It’s all about leveraging the connections you already have in order to reach new connections."
His clothing line
On top of his already thriving musical projects, Modibo is about to launch a clothing line called FAMA DEN that is expected to launch later this year. “It’s another way of expressing myself,” he says. “I’m a musician, that’s one dimension. Another dimension is creating an environment, that’s The Shed. Then, I wanted to curate what someone who lives my lifestyle or identifies as me would dress like.” As someone with a very distinct cultural heritage and upbringing, he wanted to express that through his clothing line, which includes exclusively outdoor clothing, including winter coats and capes that are made of African fabric.
You can follow all three of Modibo’s current projects on Facebook and check out their websites for details on upcoming events and announcements.
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