Photo by Ged Doyle
Africa Oyé is the UK's largest free festival of African music and culture and takes place annually in Liverpool. Beginning in 1992 as a series of small gigs in the city centre, the event has grown exponentially, moving to it’s present home of Sefton Park in 2002 to cope with demand. 80,000 people came to Oyé 2014!
With too many negative representations of Africa entrenched in images of war, disease, poverty and famine, Oyé seeks to redress the balance and highlight the fantastic range of cultures, foods, music and artists that make this great continent one of the most vibrant and inspiring in the world.
Previous artists have included Freddie McGregor, Peter Tosh, Michael Rose, Femi Kuti, Baaba Maal, Rebecca Malope, Habib Koite, Tinariwen, The Morgan Family Heritage, The Soul Brothers, Thomas Mapfumo, Luciano, The Gangbe Brass Band, Tiken Jah Fakoly, La Excelencia and Kanda Bongo Man amongst many..
'This isn’t just the largest festival of African and Caribbean music in Britain, it's the best'- The Sunday Times
Paul Duhaney is the Creative Director of Oyé and also happens to be an old mate of Truth & Lies’ co-boss Justin Turford AKA Ex-Friendly...they shared some words..
JT - Hi Paul... a quick start up question for you…When I first met you back in the 90s in North London, you were all House and Garage and I was all Drum n Bass and Jazzy stuff! We’ve both since found ourselves enraptured by the music of Africa and the rest of the World… where and when did you begin your love affair with African music (and culture)?
PD – ‘When I moved to Liverpool in 1998 I was fortunate enough to get a placement with Africa Oye, which at the time was a tiny festival taking place in various venues in the city centre. The founder of the festival, Kenny Murray, had travelled all over Africa and had a really good knowledge of the many different types of the continent’s music. Every day he would give me a different tape to listen to and take home, almost like a homework project. They would cover all styles of music, from soukous, afrobeat, to rumba, to son, and loads more.
Whilst listening to the music it became apparent that a lot of the styles and sounds had a striking resemblance to some of the house tunes that I was playing at the time and I heard a lot of soul and funk inspirations. A lot of the tunes also reminded me of old rhythm and blues music, so I had an instant liking for it.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to Africa on a couple of occasions to seek out new music myself first hand, and what had struck me most was the ingenuity of the musicians utilising anything to make instruments, which were still good enough to use on any main stage, despite being handmade.’
JT - When did you first start working for Africa Oye and how has it changed since you started?
PD – ‘I started in 1998 and the biggest change is without doubt the festival’s growth. It’s gone from a small series of city-centre gigs to a festival attended by tens of thousands of people in a park. As the festival has grown on an annual basis it has become harder and harder to keep the festival free for obvious reasons.
One of the other big changes is the power of technology. When I first started working on the programme for the festival it was so difficult to negotiate and do deals because of poor infrastructure in some of the countries of the artists we were programming. A lot of these artists didn’t have access to telephones, computers, or fax machines so you wouldn’t hear from them for weeks and then you may receive something in the post by them, so there was a lot more risk involved in the programming of the festival. Nowadays it is so different because you can talk to somebody via email or Skype or FaceTime for free in most countries in the world, which makes things so much easier.’
JT - Africa is a big old place to draw your talent pool from, how do you choose the acts you put on each year?
PD – ‘We receive over 150 artist submissions every year, most of a very high quality. But we only have 10 slots available over the 2 days so it’s really difficult to whittle that list down. We try to give as many new bands opportunities and tend to take a lot of risks programming wise, in terms of working with unknown artists but we have built up a massive network of artists agencies, talent spotters, and we’ve sourced artists ourselves over the last 20 plus years so with all those ingredients we are able to produce a programme of high quality. As well as Africa we also programme from the Diaspora, so we have programmed artists from the Caribbean and The Americas as well as some European-based bands.’
JT - Managing to put on such a huge free event must involve some great partnerships but also be quite a challenge for your organisation. As ‘austerity’ bites, how have you found the challenge of keeping up and even surpassing the quality of the festival?
PD – ‘Due to the increased popularity of the festival and the fact that it’s free, we are able to negotiate really good fees for artist who might normally cost a lot more. This enables us to continue to keep a high quality programme despite having to deal with increased infrastructure expenses every year. In the last 5 years we have had to continually increase our self-generated income to help elevate the losses or the reduction in public funding due to the austerity measures. This is not always a bad thing, as I think that all festivals should aim to be self-sufficient in the long term.’
JT - Over the years you have put on some of the biggest names in African music. What acts have really touched you and why?
PD – ‘Mokoomba from Zimbabwe who we had on in 2012 are one of the best young African bands I have seen and almost encapsulate what African music is about in one album due to their eclectic styles. Marcia Griffiths because of her iconic links to Bob Marley and the Wailers and the way the whole park sang ‘One Love’ with her was a really touching moment for me. Odemba OK Jazz All-Stars from DR Congo as well, as many of the band members played in Franco’s TPOK Jazz - a very famous Congolese Rumba band who I love.’
JT - I have a good friend who is a top immigration lawyer (Thalej Vasishta from Paragon Law) who helped bring in a lot of artists (of all disciplines) for a large international festival (World Event Young Artists) that Joff and I worked on in Nottingham. How difficult has it been to bring in who you want to perform from Africa, especially from countries suffering from conflict?
PD – ‘One of my main bug bearers in this industry is the visa system for visiting artists. Even though they are professional musicians who are coming here to work, the system tends to treat them as if they are just trying to come to the UK on holiday. Also the setup of some of the African embassies means that an artist might have to travel to another country to apply for and obtain a visa, which is absolutely ludicrous and terribly unfair. I think because of the current climate with regard to terrorist activities, security is so much more intense, which means the processes of obtaining a visa is even harder. I think if an artist has a CD which has been released by a record company, proof of billing at a festival or a concert or tour, proof of occupancy at a hotel or residential premises in the UK AND proof of travel itinerary then they should be automatically exempt from applying through the normal visa channels as they are clearly coming here to work and they have proof of this. There really is no need in this day and age with all our modern technology for the process to take as long as it does. I look at it as restriction of trade.’
JT - African music seems to be having another ‘golden age’ right now with a huge amount of new music and re-releases getting wider exposure than at any time that I can recall. Of course the Internet has helped but something else seems to be happening that I can’t put my finger on… Do you have any ideas why this might be?
PD – ‘I think this generation are a lot more open to new music due to not having any preconceptions to what music they should be listening to. I think when me and you Justin were growing up, music was almost forced down your throat, whatever the genre and was a lot more faddy. The kids of today don’t just have Top of the Pops and Radio One as their only ways of hearing music, brainwashing and dictating their musical taste, which means they tend to seek out their own music creating sub-genres aside from the mainstream.’
JT - I love this quote from your website ‘It is good to make people happy, even for a moment, or a day, or at best a lifetime. As ever, we welcome you.’ How much has the attitude of the people of Liverpool been intrinsic to the festival’s success?
PD – ‘You have to actually live in Liverpool to realise how different Scousers are from everyone else in the UK. The city is so unique in too many ways to mention. It’s far from perfect and it has its faults but the people here definitely are a main ingredient in the recipe that makes up Africa Oye. The people of Liverpool look at Oye as their own festival and it has become an important part of the cultural calendar of events in the city. When you add the thousands of people that come from outside the city and even outside the country in some cases, the ambience created is something special.’
JT - And finally, can you tell us a bit more detail about the Oye Touring and Trading offshoot? We are interested in the Regional Education Projects that you are involved in. Where? How? Why? When?
PD – ‘As well as the festival we produce national tours with UK based and visiting artists.
Where – currently only in the Northwest region as we are funded for this area of the country but we hope to expand to incorporate other areas in the future.
How – With visiting or UK-based African and Caribbean artists.
Why - Educating young people about all aspects of the visiting artist’s country of origin including their culture, their music, their geography, their currency and even their climate so that the participants are left with a legacy as well as learning about the music.
When – Annually normally around autumn time.’
Thanks Paul, see you in Liverpool!
Words by Justin Turford AKA Ex-Friendly
Africa Oye 2015
Sefton Park, Liverpool
Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st June 2015
12:30pm - 9:30pm both days /Admission: FREE