Africa Oyé 2014

With Africa Oyé, the UK's biggest free celebration of African music, returning to its home in Sefton Park this month, we sat down with new festival director Paul Duhaney to find out what makes this event so special

Feature by Jon Davies | 10 Jun 2014
  • Africa Oyé – Osibisa

Like many port towns, Liverpool has a rich history of cultural exchange and diaspora. It was the location of the UK's first Chinatown and has one of the country's oldest African communities, and both have made and still make a huge mark on the make-up of the city. While the population of African Liverpudlians has dwindled, the culture has not only survived but since 1992 it has thrived thanks to one of the Northwest's biggest festivals, Africa Oyé.

Founded by Kenny Murray, Oyé began as a series of festivals around various parks and large spaces including Birkenhead Park (where it was hosted alongside a balloon festival), the Anglican Cathedral, and Concert Square, before settling as an annual weekender at Sefton Park. Regardless of age, ethnicity or class, Africa Oyé attracts a huge following in and beyond Liverpool for its great party atmosphere and eclectic range of music on show. Paul Duhaney, who has worked at the festival for 15 years and has taken over from Murray as lead organiser, has seen Oyé go from strength to strength in each year he has taken part. “Realising that people in Liverpool were really tuned in to what we do, we saw Oyé grow from a couple of hundred people to, up until the last year, thousands. You can see how much African music and the festival has grown in that time; people are now a lot more receptive to all types of music.”

For many communities in Liverpool, Africa Oyé is one of the few music events in mainstream consciousness, along with Liverpool International Music Festival, at which they feel welcome. Oyé is one of the city's biggest summer events, but unlike other major festivals on the musical calendar, it isn't built around students with money to burn. Duhaney takes massive pleasure in seeing not just black people, but “Asian, white, rich, poor... just the whole ethnicity and social make-up of the audience is what we’re about,” and credits this to the fact that the team has managed to keep the whole festival free. The idea of free goes beyond the sense of not paying for a ticket; it has to do with the whole environment of the festival. Free of being closed into a park where you can’t drop in and out, and free of having to pay over the odds for food and drink, Oyé feels it’s vital that there are no reasons why you can’t come along. “People who might not go out for a whole year can come here with their own food and have a picnic, which surely has a benefit. The whole point is bringing together those who can’t splash out and those who have money, and they can both come and have a great time.” And that’s exactly what you see, not just the usual free public festival clientele of families, but also students staying over the summer, musicians and regular culture goers and teenagers – something that Oyé originally struggled with.

“Realising that people in Liverpool were really tuned in to what we do, we saw Oyé grow from a couple of hundred people to, up until the last year, thousands” – Paul Duhaney

Duhaney credits this diverse crowd not just to the fact that Oyé and LIMF are free, but that they are also recognised in the UK music community as major festivals: “I don’t think any city [in the UK] can boast two free festivals of that size and quality… and there’s a lot to be said about that." The pedigree of Africa Oyé’s programming not only benefits its own reputation but that of Liverpool, especially the surrounding Aigburth and Toxteth areas. The festival is proud of its accessibility, and that feeds into the economic structure of places like Lark Lane, whose businesses, including restaurants, shops and accommodation spaces, are, according to Duhaney, “on fire that weekend – all the businesses are rubbing their hands when Oyé comes round.” The festival also benefits the local stalls that set up inside the festival, the likes of which you won’t see at other, more corporate-focused events.

Of course, Africa Oyé would not be the success it is now without the quality of music that Duhaney and his team programme. It’s taken time but the festival has had a long history of finding breaking acts from across the world, as well as bringing in big global musicians and reggae artists that pull in both the mainstream and the existing local African community from Toxteth. Along with Finley Quaye, there are some big names in African diaspora music this year, as well as a handful of hot tips, including Cuban fusion nine-piece Wara, fronted by not one but three exceptionally talented female singers, and high-energy band HAJAmadagascar & The Groovy People, who blend dance music with a myriad of Malagasy styles. On top of that Oyé also includes the Damon Albarn-affiliated Jupiter & Okwess International, and the Trenchtown stage, which intends to host the DJ and dub-inspired culture of modern African music. Ultimately Africa Oyé does not seek to have a singular headline act, but rather a whole day of top quality acts that works perfectly for the relaxed atmosphere of the festival, allowing the audience to dip in and out naturally instead of there being an onrush to just see one performance, as is the custom at most festivals.

From its humble roots in 1992 to the present, Africa Oyé has been a genuine success story: it’s easily one of the most recognisable festivals in the UK, and a vital festival in the world music circuit globally. Its success is not only down to the quality of the music and the festival, but also to the tolerance and community spirit of people of the UK, and Liverpool in particular: “In contrast to Los Angeles,” says Duhaney, “where there are many languages spoken and none of them mix, [here] you can have all these ethnic minorities living next to each other and getting along. That’s why this country is so unique.” Augmented by Liverpool’s famed musical heritage, Africa Oyé is one of the biggest destinations for African musicians coming to Western audiences.

Duhaney is keen to express his gratitude towards his predecessor – without Kenny Murray, the summers in Liverpool wouldn't have been quite as colourful these past 22 years. The popularity of Africa Oyé seems to know no bounds: it has plans to tour other festivals as a stage in itself, and is looking to host regular events throughout the year, such as an African House night, which harks back to Duhaney’s DJing roots. With interest in African music no more fervent than it is now, the Northwest would no doubt welcome more of Oyé’s sunshine vibes.

Africa Oyé, Sefton Park, Liverpool, 21-22 Jun, 12.30pm-9.30pm, Free