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'Idols West Africa' Starts Search for Africa's Next Pop Star

A South African television company is choosing contestants for its new audience participation and reality television music show, Idols West Africa. Auditions are under way for a music competition series that combines audience participation, brutally honest judges and live performances. Thousands of West Africans are competing for the chance to become the continent's next pop star "Idol." Phuong Tran reports from VOA's West African bureau in Dakar.

More than 3,000 would-be music stars turned out for the first of four open auditions in West Africa. The contestants were eager to prove that they deserved a chance to be Africa's next idol.

"I want to be famous. I want the world to know me," said one male contestant.

"Hello Pop Idol West Africa. I want to be a pop idol, because I know I have got all it takes to be one," said a female contestant.

"I will be able to tell the whole world that we have got it here in Africa," said another contestant.

These are a few of the young singers who are competing to star in a television series that features a real music competition in which one contestant will be eliminated each week through a combination of audience voting and judges' marks.

The singer who gets the highest rating will win prize money and a recording contract.

The first competition will be broadcast by the South African television company M-NET in early March.

Auditions are taking place in cities in Nigeria and Ghana - countries in West Africa with the most M-NET subscribers. Following these auditions, judges will select 10 contestants. Though M-Net only has subscribers in two other countries in West Africa now, Senegal and Sierra Leone, it hopes Idols West Africa will attract new viewers.

Joseph Hundah, Director of Operations for Idols West Africa, is counting on the almost universal appeal of reality television to make it a hit.

"Reality shows have been quite a popular format for television," he noted. "M-NET, like any broadcaster in the world, would be foolish to ignore that."

M-NET introduced its first idols show in South Africa in 2002. Called Idols South Africa, it was based on Britain's Pop Idol, a format also copied by the U.S. in its American Idol series.

Hundah says the competition has been a big hit in South Africa since it began four years ago.

"Amazing how popular reality TV is with African audiences," he added.

The 2005 winner of Idols South Africa was Karin Kortje, a former fruit packer. She won a prize of almost $500,000 and a recording contract with SONY BMG. Hundah says one of the real pleasures of the show is discovering a real star.

"Talent is talent and when you unearth it, it is the most wonderful thing you can do," he said.

While Hundah hopes he can repeat the success of the Idols South Africa in West Africa, he also hopes the show will discover some unique talents.

"One hopes every pop star looks different," he explained. "You do not want the same thing. You want someone different to break out now and again. We are looking for someone young, vibrant, who is going to be able to sell their music internationally."

Like so many discoveries in the music world, the show's criteria for stardom are simple, yet unforgiving.

Contestants are now waiting to hear if they will make it to round two.

Idols West Africa will air early March and continue to the end of May.