Africa Oye: Authenticite!

Africa Oye 2010

This weekend in Sefton Park saw the annual Africa Oye festival draw probably the biggest crowds ever over two days of constant sunshine. The festival has grown considerably from its early days and now there’s a beer tent  and stalls offering all kinds of food, CDs, clothes, musical instruments, jewellery and more.

Espoirs de Coronthie 2

On Saturday I spent some time enjoying sets by Espoirs de Coronthie from Guinea and To’Mezclao from Cuba. Espoirs are a group of seven musicians and dancers, performing very much in the style of Guinean Authenticité: utilising the rhythms and instruments of traditional music, but updating their lyrics to deal with contemporary topics and daily life in Conakry. ‘Authenticité’ refers to Guinea’s state-sponsored programme in the 1960s and 1970s which established national and regional orchestras to promote authentic Guinean culture following independence from colonial rule.

Espoirs de Coronthie 1

Last summer I listened often to Authenticité, The Syliphone Years, a superb retrospective album retracing the history of those orchestras. A review of the album on the Radio France International website fills in the background:

‘Guineans celebrated the dawn of a new era in 1958, waking up to their newly won independence. But once the celebrations had died down, President Sékou Touré was faced with a harsh reality. After years of French cultural influence, the former colony had totally lost touch with its musical heritage and its own cultural roots. When President Touré wished to organise a grand musical gala in Guinea, he had to call in ET Mensah, the Ghanean king of high-life, because no local group had ever developed a repertoire based on traditional home-grown songs and rhythms.

In a bid to turn this disastrous situation around, President Touré instituted a government initiative based on reviving authentic Guinean culture and creating a popular style of Guinean music by modernising tradition. President Touré saw in this cultural initiative a vital means of forging an all-important sense of national pride amongst his compatriots.’

Espoirs de Coronthie  have become a real phenomenon in Guinea, where their music can be heard in coffee shops, clubs, on radios, in the street, and even in taxi cabs. As we saw in Sefton Park on Saturday, their music is  based on traditional instruments  such as the balafon, kora and djembé, supplemented by vocals from three singers and wild dancing. It was a powerful show, full of infectious energy.

This YouTube clip shows the group performing at a Festival in October 2009 – the presentation is the same as at Africa Oye, even down to the lead singer’s repeated exhortation, ‘We are together!’

Earlier, the festival had opened with a set from the seven-strong Havana collective To’Mezclao (from todo mezclado– all mixed together). In Cuba they are huge stars, mixing pop with cumbia, merengue, rap and reggaeton as well as the more traditional forms of Afro-Cuban music.

This morning the Daily Post reports that this year’s Africa Oye was the most successful in the event’s history.

Organiser Paul Duhaney said he had been taken aback at the success of the event this year, estimating that at any one time around 10,000 people were enjoying the music and many stalls selling everything from African – and other – food to clothes and CDs, arts and crafts.  Beginning in 1992 as a series of small gigs in the city centre, the event has gone from strength to strength, moving to its present Sefton Park home in 2002 to cope with demand after brief spells in Princes Park and even Birkenhead Park.

Mr Duhaney said: “I think Liverpool as a city should be proud of this – other cities don’t have anything like it. And there is something for everyone here.  “It’s a local festival in the sense that we want people from Liverpool coming here – but in terms of the acts on stage it’s an international festival. These are acts who could easily charge £15-£20 a ticket, but people can see them here for free.”