Many music fans who visit Liverpool do so on pilgrimages to the Cavern Club. My now annual pilgrimage to Scouseland is music related, but has nothing to do with the Beatles. The thing that’s brought me up here again this year is Africa Oyé – the UK’s biggest free African music event. It’s usually held (at least, since I’ve been going) over a weekend in June.
Miserable grey clouds hung over Sefton Park all weekend. Thankfully, though, the worst that happened was the odd drizzle. I turned up on Saturday afternoon and dutifully waited at the fence by the mainstage for Ali the Press office guy to give me my pass (I was there mainly with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on).
It was whilst waiting for Ali that I met Maya. She had come in the place of a friend of hers; an Irish radio presenter who couldn’t make it because he was ill. Throughout the weekend we worked together, pooling our equipment and interviewing artists (and Paul Duhaney, the festival organiser) together.
Africa Oyé aims to bring the best in African music free to the Liverpool public. That’s ‘African’ in the broadest sense of the word; this year’s two headliners were both reggae artists (Freddie McGregor on Saturday and Carol Thompson on Sunday). The lineup also usually features Latin music – though sadly there were no salsa bands there this year. Kasaï Masaï kicked off the festival with a blend of Congolese sounds and high energy dancing.
Next on were a Senegalese trio called Groupe Lolou. I managed to miss much of their set – but only because Maya and I spent so much time talking to their manager in the press/hospitality tent backstage. Turns out that back down in London (where they all live), I’d been to one of their friends’ houses to interview another Senegalese musician! I even managed a brief conversation in Wolof (well, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine thanks.’ Counts as a conversation to me). I should meet with them again once their album’s out.
Up till this weekend, I’d never seen Daby Touré perform live – even though he’s played Greenbelt twice, and I’d interviewed him in person a couple of years ago. He recognised me the moment he saw me, and was as thought provoking, amiable and funny throughout the interview as he’d been the last time we’d chatted – in an Arabian-style parlour in Momo’s in London. He played both days, and was a monster onstage. Fantastic.
In between sets, I had a wander around and tried to set up interviews – including one with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who was there as ambassador for the Foreign Office’s Know Before You Go campaign, aimed at getting people to ensure they’re covered for every eventuality before they go off travelling.
I only stayed long enough to hear Freddie McGregor sing ‘When Push Comes to Shove’, then I set off home (tiredness had got to me, and the clouds looked threatening). Didn’t think much of Chino (Freddie’s son) who was one of his special guests. A reggae song about ganja – very original… The little I heard of Freddie sounded great, though.
The Congolese singer Gordon Masiala kicked things off on Sunday, and provided one of my most hilarious interview moments ever. Whilst onstage, Gordon had made a point of informing us that he was wearing Versace. I’d heard a lot about Congo’s Sapeurs before (and had met the king of them, Papa Wemba, once), so I asked Gordon about the significance of high fashion in Congolese music and culture. That was his cue to give Maya and me a close-up inspection of all his designer ‘garms’. He then went off on one about how he was the best-dressed Congolese musician ever. For a minute, he sounded just like the ‘Rolex Sweep’ song: “Papa Wemba can’t dress like me; Koffi Olomide can’t dress like me; Awilo Longomba can’t dress like me. One glass of champagne for me…” at least I can now say I’ve seen the inside label of a Versace jacket…
My best new discovery on Sunday (and a slightly more level-headed interviewee than Gordon) was the Cameroonian singer Muntu Valdo. With just his guitar and a harmonica, Muntu rocked. He had a Digitech Jam Man (gadget that allows musos to create loops whilst playing live, so they can make up their own accompaniment) which he used not only to create complex backing rhythms and music, but also to provide backing vocals for himself! That gizmo has really revolutionised acoustic music.
Kanda Bongo Man had a sore throat and so delegated most of the lead vocals in his set to his two backing vocalists. Despite the throat, he and his band rocked. Is it me, or are the girl dancers in Congolese bands getting really young these days?
Final act of the festival was Carol Thompson. I really hadn’t been that interested in seeing her sing, to be honest. I vaguely remembered her from back in the 80s, but thought that putting on mellow lovers rock tunes after all the bouncing about we’d done to Kanda’s soukous jamfest would be a major anticlimax. So it was rather reluctantly that I took my position by the stage.
“I’m only going to hear one song, than home,” I told myself. In the end, she won me over. A medley of her old hits morphed into a cover of the Commodores’ ‘Easy’. She followed that with a Gospel-flavoured song based largely on Psalm 23 (“In the times we’re living in, we need to be more spiritual,” she told us). Rather than do the usual ‘say goodbye, walk off the stage and do an encore’ thing, she just sang right through, ending with a medley of old ska songs that had the entire audience screaming along (I have all the screams on tape!).
“Everybody in Liverpool is a performer,” Maya informed me as we enjoyed a post-festival drink. I certainly met a few: the old bloke with no front teeth who kept rallying other people in the crowd to dance; the guy in a cowboy hat who managed to outdance Kanda Bongo Man and his entire band; and of course the women in the front row who got louder and louder whenever they saw my Zoom recording machine pointed at them!
And that was Africa Oyé 2009: a weekend in which I heard some brilliant music, made a new friend, got a few contacts and ate way too much Chinese food for one person. Looking forward to next year’s already…