Africa Oyé!

Africa Oyé 2011
Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June

Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.

Mariem Hassan

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.

the Ganbgé Brass Band in action

The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.

Bonga

The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.

Amkoullel teaches some kids (and a few adults) how to rap at one of his workshops

Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.

This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the

Kareyce Fotso

charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.

Fatoumata Diawara: now she's on the ground...

Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),

... and now she's airborne! Watch her go!

and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.

It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…

"Yo Liverpool, how you feeling?"

There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.

Steven Sogo

The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…

The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.

After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”

Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.

"Me en mi fambul dem," Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…

Live review: Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”

Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”
Royal Festival Hall, 12 March

The last few Baaba Maal gigs I’ve seen were all collaborative efforts. There was the marathon Africa Express show up in Liverpool, where he rocked out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hard Fi – and following that, a Meltdown show at the Royal festival Hall, at which he shared the stage with long-time collaborator Mansoor Seck and Brit rappers Kano and Bashy. Tonight’s gig was a similar joint effort; this time round Baaba played host to a string of female vocalists from Africa and the UK: Eska, Krystle Warren, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, Speech Debelle and VV Brown.

Baaba has been singing the praises of African women in an honorary feminist style for some time now (as he was the last time I spoke to him), and this gig was, in effect, him taking that further. Sure enough, the track ‘A Song for Women’ (from his last album, Television) had an airing – done as a beautiful duet with VV Brown. But I’m running ahead of myself…

Eska was the first lady to take the stage after Baaba and his band had got things started (actually, the first lady to take the stage was host Andrea Oliver, larger than life and rocking a ‘baldhead’ look as only she can). I’m one person for whom Eska can do no wrong, and she was on brilliant form – both as a vocalist and as a multi-instrumentalist. The first of Eska’s two songs was a reworking of Odyssey’s ‘Inside Out’ (of late, she’s been taking old 70s and 80s disco-pop tunes and reinterpreting them in a quirky jazz style). For her second song, ‘Rock of Ages’, Eska emerged from behind the keyboards and accompanied herself on a violin.

Annie Flore Batchielys was definitely the surprise act of the night – or at least the one with the most unusual entrance. Having been led onstage arm in arm by Baaba, she proceeded to back-track her way out of the band’s little circle, and stayed out of it for nearly all of the song she was supposed to be accompanying Baaba on. When she did start singing, however, she was electrifying. She did a couple of songs on her own while the band took a short break. I didn’t catch all of what she said while she was talking to us (Note to self: might be time to start listening to those French podcasts again), but everyone caught the profuse thanks to Baaba Maal in the closing lines of her last song.

For my money, Krystle Warren was the most intriguing of the other guests, but you kind of got the impression that she’d been added on to the bill at the last minute (especially when she didn’t appear in the grand finale). VV Brown was dignified and elegant while Speech tried to play up to the “rappers are rebellious” stereotype by declaring that she was going to take up more time than she’d been allocated for her set. But there was plenty of love in the house – as the founder of the South Bank’s Women of the World season (of which this gig was a part) discovered when she chatted to Andrea about the advances that have been made by women in the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed. It was only at that point that I realised there was supposed to be a feminist angle to the whole event – but I’m sure I speak for all the blokes in the house when I say that it never felt exclusive or “girls only.”

I left the RFH nodding my head along to the opening track of Annie Nightingale‘s post-gig DJ set. As I stepped out of the venue, I wondered what Kwame Kwei Armah and Paul Gambaccini had to say about their feminist sides, and contemplated coming along on Sunday to hear them speak. In the end, I didn’t.