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Preview: Africa Oyé 2024 & The London Gospel Choir’s ‘Graceland’


Africa Oyé is doing things differently and the same all at once. It’s a recipe for disaster but it’s going to work.

The UK’s biggest celebration of African music usually attracts about fifty thousand people to Sefton Park, and this year will probably be bigger. The park headliners include huge acts like Julian Marley and Les Amazones d’Afrique, who would pack the park out without the rest of the festival around them. But there’s also the return of Movema’s Active Zone, tons for families to do and, of course, a park full of art and music.

Maybe more impactful though is the slower pace of this year’s programme, which isn’t just one weekend long. It started out with Guinean Griot, N’faly Kouyaté at the Phil’s Music Room, but the one I’m most excited for is Graceland.Paul Simon’s Graceland, one of the most recognisable albums of the 1980’s, if not the 20th century, will be performed in its entirety by The London African Gospel choir.

The album, inspired by the South African dance music, mbaqanga, was one of the first major releases to popularise South African music in the Western world. There was criticism around its release, both in terms of cultural appropriation, and also for breaking a cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa – a protest led by Artists United Against Apartheid, spearheaded by artists including Paul Weller and Billy Bragg.

Paul Simon spent most of his post-album tours and interviews justifying the album, and despite its lack of protest lyrics, did seek to use it to demonstrate against apartheid. In 1991, when the boycott was lifted, Paul Simon was invited by Nelson Mandela to tour the album around South Africa.

Regardless of the social history, the long-term impact of the album has been to open western ears to the energy of South African music, mbaqanga specifically, and embrace its joy.

Now, ahead of Oyé, one of the most ambitious recreations of that album is coming here, to Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall thanks to the London African Gospel Choir. And it shows one thing above everything else – Africa Oyé is for everyone. It’s a presentation of music as an artform that transcends global boundaries, and in many cases seeks to break them down by reinforcing proper ownership.

And by spreading the wider Oyé programme out, away from Sefton Park, this year offers the massive joy we’re used to, but lets us experience it where and when we can.

If you can’t make the Graceland shows, or Sefton Park’s Oyé weekend (22nd-23rd June), there’s still Jali Bakary Konteh at the Tung auditorium (17th April) and Dele Sosimi’s Afrobeat Experience at Future Yard (28th April) before the festival in June.

I’m excited for Graceland for a million reasons, but there’s something for everyone in this massive festival of art and music.

Find out more about Africa Oyé at www.africaoye.com / Africa Oyé, 22nd-23rd June 2024, Sefton Park is free to all
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

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