As Africa Oyé turns 25, Shaun Ponsonby basks in the glory of what is arguably the best weekend on the Liverpool calendar.
Last year, Africa Oyé had a mixed weekend when I came to the weather.
Although the Saturday was glorious, rain clouds gathered on the Sunday, leading to the sparsest crowd we had ever seen for the festival. Spirits were high down the front, but it was still disheartening to look back and see an empty park for Mbongwana Star – one of the finest bookings they could have made.
But then, that is the risk you take with a free festival of this size.
Obviously, that wasn’t a problem this year. For Oyé’s landmark 25th festival, Britain was treated to a heatwave, and Oyé itself broke its own attendance record, with over 80,000 people flocking to Sefton Park.
We always like to take a stroll during Oyé. The diversity of those in attendance is unashamedly heart-warming. There is a feeling of peacefulness in the air that we don’t quite feel anywhere else. In what gathering of this many people do you feel that? Everybody is friendly, everybody is happy. The sunshine only amplifies this feeling, and it almost feels as if Oyé themselves have planned it.
The further back from the stage you go, the more it feels like a community event rather than a concert. All ages, races, genders, sexualities, families with picnic baskets, kids with footballs, adults with beer. Everyone is accounted for.
The main stage tends to begin with these more community events. We saw the kids who form Kaos at Positive Vibration a week earlier, and they put a smile on our faces as much today as they did then. As the park fills, however, the emphasis on Africa’s finest becomes more pronounced.
The Grammy winning Dobet Gnahoré had shaken things up at the front by the end of her set with a dance routine that appeared both erratic and controlled in equal measure. It whipped the dancefloor into a frenzy that probably would have continued all night had she been allotted the time.
Hearing Black Prophet open with an intro of Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train was probably the most surreal moment I’ve experienced at a gig for quite a while, but the metallic approach gave his band an edge, before the Prophet himself bounced on stage with all the bravado his name suggests.
Exploring the site is always recommended, as you never quite know what you are going to find. Trenchtown gave us a series of DJ sets throughout the weekend – including Andy Kershaw, whose set was somewhat interrupted by a dog that made me exit immediately. Hey folks – I know it’s a park, but don’t bring your dog, dig?
Of course, the coup for Saturday was Mokoomba. Their appearance says much of Oyé’s pulling power for acclaimed African acts. It wasn’t all afrobeat, and we couldn’t help detect a hint of Latin rhythms. Usually by this point, the park starts to clear out a little. But this year the place remained packed, and Mokoomba rose to the challenge gloriously.
Day two felt even hotter, if marginally less full.
HAJAmadagascar & the Groovy People managed to make a huge sound with a fairly stripped down line-up, and that is even when going up against Dizzy Mandjeku & Odemba OK All-Stars, the members of which we kept losing count of.
We might be alone, but the final two acts felt like they were gearing up for a bit of a showdown. In truth, Jupiter & Okwess International had an energy that was pretty unmatched all weekend and, if we were forced to pick a highlight – we’re not, but to Hell with it – they probably earned it.
Headliner Max Romeo had a tough act to follow, but it can be no big deal when you are a living legend. He exuberates the kind of confidence you can only get as a veteran, and he breezes through standards like Chase The Devil with remarkable ease. After the insanity of Jupiter & Okwess, it was actually a welcome comedown, and a fitting way to end the weekend.
Oyé is something truly special, and each year it grows in stature and size. The festival area seems to have expanded to meet the demand, with absolutely no signs of this changing.
Through Oyé, we discover music that we wouldn’t otherwise discover, we come together as a happy, peaceful collective and we are educated about culture beyond our neurotic, Western front door. There is nothing like it, and we need it now more than ever.
Africa Oye – we love you. Never change.
Pictures by Graham Simille and Mark Holmes