Interview: Mark Dieler – From Reggae and Afrobeat to Baltic Beats: A Global Music Affair (May 2023)

Fresh from another fantastic edition of Tallinn Music Week, an intense and vibrant long weekend brimming with music and new sounds in the Estonian capital, where attendees are consistently captivated by the nifty music quality and the generous, relentless dances. This year was no exception, and part of the credit is certainly due to a specific stage—Africa Now, the festival’s dedicated platform for African and Afr0-diasporic music.

Our focus on this stage wasn’t solely due to the cozy, inviting ambiance of its location in the shoeless Club of Different Rooms, but was primarily influenced by the dedication and expertise of its manager and programmer, Mark Dieler. Africa Now! introduced us to a plethora of incredible acts, including Ugandan Arsenal Mikebe, Lithuanian/Malian Afrodelic, and Tallinn-based Afro Chill DJs, sparking our curiosity about the mastermind behind it all.

So, we sat down with Mark, a compelling storyteller with a rich background that spans continents. His journey, deeply rooted in his multicultural upbringing, has taken him from the lakeside town of Ranco in Italy to the vibrant landscapes of Africa and then to the Baltics..


“Well, let me start from a tangent,” he chuckled, answering our first question about his roots. “My mother was East German, my father West German, and I grew up in Italy. So, let’s say that opened a lot my interest towards the wider world.

Mark’s early taste of different cultures really sparked his interest in exploring the world. “From a very early age, I was not stuck with patriotic feelings but had a huge curiosity for this big world,” he reflected.

His journey into the realm of music, he explained, began as a form of activism. “I saw music as a way to bring a lot of people together and pass some messages, and that’s how I got involved in music,” Mark shared. His passion for diverse sounds led him to explore beyond the confines of mainstream radio, delving into reggae and the roots of African music. “I did also feel a strong connection to immigrants from other countries while I was still living in Italy where I grew up. And by connecting to them I started to hear more diverse music than you could find in the radios. The music in the radios was always pretty bad at the time. I listened to a lot of reggae at the time. That was maybe my first connection to African music because that is where reggae comes from really,” he reminisced.

Mark’s adventure took a different course when he chose to enrol at the Faculty of African and Asian Studies in the UK. This academic episode widened his perspective, and he discovered a fascination for the intricate history of the Mandinka Empire in Mali and Senegal.”I started to listen to kora music because one thing that really impressed me was the history of the Mandinka Empire. These countries that we now know as Mali, Senegal, and The Gambia were actually part of this huge empire. The story that really impressed and inspired me was that, unlike in our Western culture where history is written in books, in the Mandinka Empire, history was written in the strings of the kora. So, these 21 strings served as the library of the culture. That was maybe an epiphany for me at the time. That’s when I started listening to Toumani Diabaté and so on,” he shared.

As our conversation unfolded, Mark transported us to the G8 summit in Genova, where he found himself marginally involved. Then, a desire for change and exploration led him to a two-week job in Kenya, eventually extending to a remarkable 15 years in East Africa. “I felt that after the G8 and what happened in those days, I didn’t want to be in Italy or in Europe anymore for a while and somehow ended up for a two week job in Kenya. From there I stayed 15 years in East Africa at the end. I was working for a tour operator doing adventure sports and these kinds of things,” Mark explained.

His experiences in Africa shattered preconceived notions, and he found himself deeply immersed in the local music scene, attending concerts and raves. “I began making friends there. One night in Mombasa, I went out, and I was the only white guy. I was the least educated and earned the least money among the group. This experience changed my perspective on Africa. I started attending parties, jazz concerts, and electronic music raves there. Gradually, I realised that many people in Europe hold clichéd beliefs about Africa that don’t align with the reality I was experiencing.

In Europe, there’s a common misconception that African music should fit a specific mold, often labeled as ‘African music,’ and confined within the genre of world music. I believe this view is too narrow. That realisation prompted me to collaborate with artists who eventually became my friends”.

While living in Zanzibar for over 10 years, he initiated a jam session and established a regular collaboration with the local music school. “We started working regularly with the local music school, with the rastas who were on the beach playing djembe. Then we organised some events with Pete from On the Corner Records, who was living there at that time,” he recounted.

Mark’s eyes sparkled with memories of the artists he collaborated with, from Dele Sosimi to Cleveland Watkiss. He emphasised the thriving music scene in East Africa, introducing names like Msafiri Zawose.

Shifting our focus, we explored Mark’s journey in event organising, reflecting on his inaugural event at the age of 17. “I organised my first event at the age of 17 in the village where I lived, on a football field near my parents’ house My father was not too impressed. He actually organised a signature petition against this event,” he chuckled. The event, a three-day extravaganza in Ranco on Lago Maggiore, brought together 2,000 people in a village of 900 residents.

That was a great experience. We had a few artists from Guadalupe there. We had Bisca, an Italian band that, at the time, released a song called ‘Ugo,’ addressing Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Lega Lombarda, a separatist party. The song ‘Ugo’ depicted a scenario where Ugo dislikes his Southern body part so much that he cuts himself in two. We thought it was quite fitting to feature this band on that occasion. This decision was particularly on the mark because just a few weeks before, there was a significant Lega Lombarda meeting in Ranco, which was quite impactful. So, featuring this band was a statement against that. As I mentioned, I come from the activist side of things”.

The transformation in Mark’s approach to event planning came into focus as he shared insights on the amalgamation of music and cultural activism. “I believe in a lot of improvisation, going with the flow, and reinventing. Looking back, it seems like there was a strategy, but truthfully, there wasn’t. Maybe now, being a bit older and collaborating with very professional people whom I feel privileged to work with, I have become a bit more long-term thinking and organised. But I think that’s the biggest difference. The passion remains the same, and the heart is in the same place. What has changed is perhaps a more professional approach to organising events,” he mused.

At one point, when you improvise yourself, you cannot reach the quality benchmark that may be where you want to be, especially working with great artists,” he continued. “Another change is that before, I used to organise events with a political statement. Now, I’ve come to believe that the kind of events with the music and content we organise are a political statement in themselves. It doesn’t need a slogan or specific colours. Bringing diverse music to a diverse crowd is a cultural work. The opposite of culture is ignorance, which brings xenophobia and homophobia. By working with culture and bringing people together, I think that’s political in itself.

Secondly, I find it political enough when we organise an event, and people leave with a smile. They come with an angry face and leave happier than they were before. I believe that has enough impact without having to develop a more complicated and possibly divisive approach.’

Our conversation seamlessly transitioned to the evolving music scene, both globally and in Africa. Mark acknowledged the increased accessibility of music through the internet but dispelled the notion that music has declined in quality. ‘Of course, there is internet access, making things much more accessible. So, that has also changed the kind of music that audiences can listen to. Although there were record shops before, and if you were interested in something, you would dig and find amazing things. But what else could I say? I think for those people who have curiosity, it’s just much easier to find a lot of stuff. There’s a lot more content out there, but I don’t agree with people who say music used to be better and now there’s only bad stuff. There are just more things, which means there’s also more good stuff, but you have to filter it. So, that’s a thing.’

As the discussion delved into the challenges faced by African artists, Mark illuminated the struggles arising from the absence of support networks and funding. “Then, I think the significant difference, maybe between what African artists experience and what European or Western artists experience, especially applied to examples of showcase festivals, is that they have very little support networks. There are no export offices, no cultural departments in the governments that support these artists to promote their careers. This is different in some countries in Europe, or in the West at least, where there is an ecosystem that supports the artists, gives them opportunities, and even funding for mobility. This is very difficult for most African artists.

I see that also with the showcase festivals that are based on the model where they offer top production, invite delegates, and then it is the export offices covering the travel for the bands. This is not possible for many African artists. Some African artists based in the diaspora have access to that, but those who have a lot of talent and are based in Tanzania or Uganda, particularly close to East Africa, although my musical journey started with West African music, have zero access to this kind of situation. It hasn’t improved in these years. I have not seen much improvement. I’ve seen maybe the newer generation of some young African artists I worked with from that region. They grew up using the internet, so it’s maybe easier for them to access information, and that allows them to build their audience beyond their country. Maybe that has changed, but access to funding from an institutional side, not”.

Mark’s narrative painted a vivid picture of collaboration and cultural exchange, exemplified by projects like Uhuru Republic. He expressed his belief in music’s ability to evolve while respecting its roots. ‘I believe there’s another example that illustrates this point. Let’s revisit Msafiri Zawose, who became a good friend. We collaborated with an Italian producer named FiloQ, along with Giulietta Passera and Raffaele Rebaudengo, to create a project called Uhuru Republic. Alessio Bertallot was also involved in the initial stages.

They visited Tanzania, where we were based, and we facilitated their connection with the local music school where they conducted workshop, resulting in the formation of the musical project Uhuru Republic. One track features Msafiri, marking it as the second collaboration with him. I find it noteworthy to showcase the diversity in this connection, blending traditional music from Msafiri and the Zawose family with new electronic sounds.

This synthesis maintains respect for the past without undermining its significance. It represents a progression, and that’s what I appreciate about it. Music is dynamic and alive. This sentiment contrasts with my criticism of the term ‘world music,’ which often confines genres to the past and resists embracing the evolving global landscape. As society changes, so should music.

The latest chapter of Mark’s tale brought us to the Baltics, where he currently resides. ‘I met my partner in life, crime, happiness, and work in Zanzibar,’ he shared. ‘She is Latvian-Lithuanian; she came from Venezuela. I’m German-Italian; I came from Kenya, and this is the reason how we logically ended up in Liepāja, in the Baltics.’

He goes on to describe their multifaceted involvement, not just limited to bookings but extending to a production company that supports emerging artists. “I’m a part of a booking agency called Lona Musik, that focuses on global beats. My partner, Sintrevalja, is Brazilian, based in Berlin. And then we have our own production company; we support with this production company some of the younger artists, like Napalma.” Detailing their collaboration with independent venues in the Baltics, Mark highlights their efforts to create mini-tours. ‘We collaborate with a lot of independent venues in the Baltics to create mini-tours,’ he shares. ‘I can invite artists maybe to play 10-12 different shows, for low fees, from 200 to 500 Euro, but doing them back to back, they actually can travel back to Kampala or Dar es Salaam with a few thousand Euro, which actually makes a difference.’

Mark navigates the intricate world of event production, acknowledging the unpredictable nature of the industry. “It’s ups and downs. Sometimes very difficult to say what works and why, and what doesn’t work and why not. Sometimes there’s this one situation; I’m sure I’ll sell all the tickets; there will be a huge crowd response, and we don’t. This other thing, I think it’s at a very high risk, and it sells out. So I don’t really have an answer.

Amidst the twists and turns, Mark discovers the charm woven into the network they’ve crafted.”What is very beautiful, however, is that with this network that we collaborate with, sometimes, or most of the time, you know, in this region, artists, they come solo, so they do solo performances, so that has triggered a lot of collaborations. Maybe they play together with a house band or a jazz trio, and they jam together. So there are these relationships that have started developing.

Mark shares a delightful anecdote about the Gambian musician Dawda Jobarteh, vividly illustrating the connections cultivated through their events. He recalls, “Well, there was Dawda Jobarteh; he came last year. We were doing a Thursday groove and jazz event and invited some special guests. So Dawda joined with his youngsters, 19 to 20 years old; they look too young to be good musicians, and then I realized it’s me too old to understand that they are in their prime and have been playing music for 15 years, and they had an enormous, fantastic jam session.

Continuing with more examples, Mark mentions, “Right now, we have Arsenal Mikebe from the mythical Nyege Nyege Records coming this Friday to play at the Showcase Africa Now here at Tallinn Music Week. And he’s playing four other gigs around the Baltics; one gig he’s playing in Vilnius together with Afrodelic, who is also going to join the stage here on Friday. Afrodelic is another very good example of music, very much because of empathy and passion. So with Victor Diawara of Afrodelic, I have this connection of a strong, deep bond to Africa. His father was a very important poet from Mali, and I lived there for over 15 years, so that was a connection. We both live in the Baltics, so we both somehow have this interest in Africa in the Baltics, and that creates some very interesting conversations.

Talking about Tallinn Music Week, Mark expresses his happiness and privilege to be a part of it. ‘I feel very happy and privileged to be a small part of Tallinn Music Week. This festival showcases a diverse array of music, attracting people from all corners of the globe—agents, musicians, and journalists alike. It serves as a key hub for connections in the Baltics.’ He discusses his role in curating the Africa Now! stage, offering a different angle to African music. ‘At Tallinn Music Week, now in its third year of collaboration, I am curating the Africa Now! stage. This year, my aim is to present a different angle on Africa, moving beyond the conventional world music lens. The stage will feature not only diverse sounds but also electronic music, accompanied by a taste of African cuisine. Visuals on the screen will showcase elements like penguins, snow, and flowers—distinct facets often overlooked but integral to the continent. To add to the experience, South African wine and Ethiopian coffee will be on offer, creating a small yet rich representation of the vast African kaleidoscope.’

To keep himself busy, Mark also manages a second stage at TMW: “While, on Saturday, I’ll be managing the Cindy & Kate stage. This project involves a network of Baltic independent venues across three countries, supported by Live Music Estonia and the Nordic Culture Fund. It’s a unique co-curation approach, where each of the 12 independent venues contributes pre-selected artists. This collaborative effort results in a diverse lineup, offering a refreshing perspective on the music scene.”

Reflecting on how to experience an intense and busy festival like Tallinn Music Week, Mark encourages exploration. He says, ‘I think probably everybody should do a bit of research and see what is interesting for them specifically, but the nice thing is you can actually float between venues and listen in. You meet people again because everything is so close. Ask them, Did you hear anything great? and quickly go; they have another 20 minutes. I think that’s a very good way of approaching it here because that’s the way to discover new things. If you only follow what you already know, you get stuck in what you already know.’

Earlier, I mentioned Msafiri Zawose, who hails from an artistic family. His father, Hukwe Zawose, had close ties to Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, and played a pivotal role in developing the cultural school there. Hukwe Zawose was later discovered by Peter Gabriel, releasing two albums on Real World. Now, Msafiri Zawose is carrying forward this cultural heritage. I thought of him when I mentioned Pete from On the Corner Records; they collaborated on a beautiful release that I recommend you listen to. What I love about it is that it seamlessly brings together the old and the new.‘ He also suggests listening to BCUC, Nyege Nyege Tapes – they release a variety of different quality things – and afrobeat master Oghene Kologbo.

As we wrapped up our talk, Mark’s enthusiasm for music, culture, and connection remained palpable. His story, woven with threads of diversity and change, highlighted how music has the transformative power to foster understanding and bridge gaps across the globe.