‘I had to do something’: Senegal electro star sings to save his language

Benoit Fader Keita, whose stage name is Beni Fadi, includes traditional Bedik tales in his native language in his music. Photograph: Sam Bradpiece

Mënik is spoken by only a few thousand people, but Benoit Fader Keita hopes to change that by bringing it to a new audience, from Dakar to Paris and Berlin

Benoit Fader Keita never intended to make electro music. But after a sell-out first show in Dakar last month, the singer believes the genre could be key to saving his beloved language from extinction. “Techno has an international appeal. Everyone came to this concert – there were people from lots of different countries,” he says. “It is probably the first time that they have ever heard someone singing in Mënik.”

Known by stage name Beni Fadi, the 36-year-old comes from the Bedik minority of south-east Senegal. Mënik, his mother tongue, is spoken by fewer than 4,000 people. Unesco classifies it as one of nearly 2,500 endangered languages around the world.

When Keita moved to the Senegalese capital as a student in 2008, he was shocked by how few people at his university had heard of his community. “No one spoke my language. No one knew anything about the Bedik people – most didn’t even know that we existed. It really upset me that even in my own country, none of these people had heard of us. That’s when I realised I had to do something,” he says.

Keita has gigs in Paris and Berlin coming up and at the end of the month releases a four-track EP co-produced by pan-African electro heavyweights, ElectrAfrique and RISE, marking a major moment in his one-man linguistic revival.

Keita believes he can reach a larger, global audience through techno music. Photograph: Sam Bradpiece

ElectrAfrique’s co-founder, DJ Cortega, heard Keita during a 2020 trip to his home town, Bandafassi. “I was immediately touched by his story and what he was trying to do. I liked how versatile his voice was,” says Cortega.

The EP’s title, Farkoko (Mënik for “chameleon”), reflects Keita’s adaptation to a new musical style.

The singer begun making music in 2018, mostly reggae, and publishing self-produced tracks on Facebook and YouTube. One lamented how politicians of all parties had broken their promises by failing to address security issues in his region; another blasted a news broadcaster for spreading lies about the Bedik people.

Keita’s conversion to electronic music was mostly down to DJ Cortega. “He helped me see that electro was the best way to internationalise my language and culture,” says Keita.

Keita narrates traditional Bedik folklore over snare-laced afro-house and techno. One track, Beggo, tells the fable of a man who falls in love with a baobab tree, which with the help of a mischievous spirit had metamorphosed into a young woman. A tale with a moral, Benoit says, to accept realistic beauty standards.

“If I don’t sing about these stories, they will disappear,” he says.

Friends and family doubted that Keita would get anywhere as a musician in Senegal – whose music scene has been dominated by upbeat dance music called mbalax since the 1970s, with Youssou N’Dour a seminal proponent. It also has a flourishing jazz and hip-hop scene.

“They told me that there were over 3,000 singers in Senegal and that I didn’t stand a chance,” says Keita.

Determined to succeed, he went underground, recording music in private and putting a halt on releases via social media. Soon he was getting radio play and people began to take him seriously.

In Bandafassi, the hilly commune that has been home to the Bedik community since the 13th century, people are grateful. “If the Mënik language continues to survive, it will be largely down to him,” says Tama Funé Keita, an elder and blacksmith.

Mënik is not taught in schools and economic migration from the area means that the once insular Bedik community is increasingly mixing with the wider population and adopting other languages, such as Wolof and Pulaar.

The Bedik community say if the Mënik language continues to survive, it will be largely down to Keita. Photograph: Sam Bradpiece

“We are forced to speak other languages because otherwise no one will understand us. We are an extremely small minority,” says Gabriel Camara, an official at Bandafassi town hall.

The music is not yet paying the bills but Keita believes balancing his full-time job as a video editor with an increasingly busy schedule of shows, rehearsals and recording sessions is a worthwhile juggling act.

“I don’t want to witness the death of my language and culture. That would make me complicit,” he says.

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