You can make any business work in China. Ignore the self-styled experts who drone on about barriers to entry and Kafka-esque bureaucracy; China’s a land of opportunity, and not just for well-heeled representatives of the corporate elite.
Meet John Seny. He came here from Uganda knowing little more about the Middle Kingdom than that he liked their kungfu movies. In classic Horatio Alger style, he responded to a lack of stable employment by doing what he loves best -drumming – and making a business out of it. A year and a half later, his Afro Sound Drum Troupe of Beijing has more gigs than time to perform them, a testament to China’s waxing interest in all things African, and to the charismatic mojo of John and his troupe. Chalk one up to taking the road less traveled.
What brought you to China, John?
While still in Uganda, I was affected by Chinese movies a lot. I was very curious about this country and dreamed about what life would be like here.Uganda being a third world country, acquiring a visa to go abroad is not a very easy thing. However, when my luck came, I got a Chinese visa. As a new traveler I didn’t know too much about China, and the only information I could find was about Beijing. The information portrayed Beijing as a very open, friendly place . That and the fact that I can speak English, a language well established in this city, account for why I ended up here rather than somewhere like Xi’an or Qingdao.
What about China is different from what you expected?
I’m afraid I had many of the widespread misconceptions about living here that many internationals have, pertaining to food, lifestyle, infrastructure. That’s why my first impression of Beijing blew me away. I quickly realized I was in one of the most exciting, cutting edge places in the world.
So was it really a lack of employment that led you to creating a drum troupe?
That and my wife. Back in May of 2006, I was quite frustrated with how hard it was to find stable work. My wife knew how proud I was of my drumming, and has the typically entrepreneurial Chinese mind. She told me that more and more Zhonguoren were fascinated with African culture, and that I could make money performing. At the time, I was confident in my drumming, but certainly not in the prospects of earning a living with it. Thanks to her support and conviction, a few months later I had my troupe together, and we were starting to make money.
How have your experiences performing been, seeing as you’re a cultural ambassador of sorts?
Extremely positive, overall. The hardest part is getting the word out, of course, but once we get a gig, the business side is usually smooth. As for the shows, our audiences are very polite and supportive. We always try to get them up and dancing, you know, get interactive. Once we succeed, that’s where the real fun starts!
Where do you usually perform, and in what venues?
Too many to characterize. I just got back from a corporate event in Shenzhen. We do culture fairs, nightclubs, the works. And we’re willing to travel anywhere, wherever people are willing to see us.
And the audience usually gets “interactive”, as you say?
It depends on the occasion. You can tell when someone in the audience hasn’t seen many black people, let alone in traditional costume. But we go all out to reach across the cultural gap. Also, the sound and appeal of drums is universal. I think quite a few people here don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to different cultures very often, at least not as often as people in more diverse countries. That’s why it’s more special for them, and we feel special to have the opportunity to bring it to them.
What do you hope to accomplish with your troupe?
We want to promote African culture in China as widely as possible, and keep getting better and better as a group. Hopefully, Afro Sound Drum Troupe of Beijing will be recognized as the best traditional African performing group in China.