(A report by Nigerian musician Beautiful Nubia/Segun Akinlolu)
It all began quietly… Nadine McNulty, the artistic director of Afrofest, one of the longest running African music festivals in North America, had been exchanging e-mails with Sunkanmi Sanusi, a staff of Lagos’ EKO FM. Somewhere in their electronic interchange, Beautiful Nubia and his music came up. This is not strange as Sunkanmi, who now resides in the UK, is one of the few young Nigerian radio personalities who truly love music and have genuine passion for their work. He is also one of those rare Nigerians who believe in and are proud of their cultural heritage and would do anything to promote whatever is original, innovative and of course, Nigerian. I had been introduced to him just after the release of my first album, Seven Lifes, by Tunde Aleshinloye one of his bosses and mentors at EKO FM.
Aleshinloye, better known to many as Alesh is totally something else – one of the last of a dying breed of professional broadcasters for whom the radio is life. Alesh has arguably one of the largest collections of Nigerian music dating back to long before independence. He has been known to actually supply artistes with copies of their own recordings which they had forgotten about and had no copy of. Alesh, it is, who will sit you down, listen to your album and analyse your music bar by bar, showing you strengths and weaknesses even you never knew you possessed. This is the kind of genius, hero, champion we never celebrate in our country till we lose them.
Well, back to the topic. Following Sunkanmi’s prodding, I asked my manager to contact MusicAfrica, organisers of Afrofest. A few weeks later, Nadine wrote us to say we had been accepted to play at this prestigious African festival. This was good news to us as we had just survived a bitter winter during which we had worked hard to build up my name and following in Ottawa through regular solo performances and weekly gigs with a band I was building around my new acoustic sound. It was important for us to take my name further, beyond Canada’s capital of civil servants, to centres of greater action, like Toronto. Having applied for more than thirty summer music festivals across both the US and Canada, and knowing how difficult it is for new and foreign artistes like me to get booked, we were happy to grab every opportunity we got.
Afrofest is a festival any musician would be proud to perform at. The whole idea was born in 1989 as a private venture of Highlife World, a company specializing in the Highlife music of Ghana. A year later, Thaddy Ulzen and Sam Mensah formed Music Africa as a non-profit community organization to elevate the festival to be a truly community event and a showcase for the diverse African communities and culture in the city of Toronto. The first Afrofest was held at Toronto’s eponymous Bamboo Club. Since then, it has moved to its seemingly permanent home, Queen’s Park, right in the heart of downtown Toronto. It has grown into the biggest annual African music event in Canada, recording averages of 20,000 people in attendance, in two days of high-energy African music and dancing, also featuring a popular arts and craft market and a food court where you can taste a variety of cuisine from across the vast African continent.
The formula used by the organisers is to mix popular African musicians as headliners with many unknowns and rising acts, in way that the audience experiences the best of old, established African music and new, evolving creative tendencies. In years past, the festival had featured such popular names like South Africa’s Hugh Masekela and Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, amongst others. This year’s headliner would be another Zimbabwean giant, the trance-inducing mbira exponent Stella Chiweshe, whom I often love to describe as the feminine leg of the Zimbabwe tripod (the others would naturally be the afore-mentioned Mapfumo and the high-riding Oliver Mtukudzi, who is arguably the most popular musician in the Southern African region right now). Lining up behind ‘Mother of Mbira’ Chiweshe would be sixteen other artistes – Nyamamusango (Zimbabwe), Chasaya Sichilima & Zamcab (Zambia), Drummers of Burundi (Burundi), Yasmina Ramzy & Arabesque (Egypt), Dawit Siyum (Eritrea), Shego Band (Somalia), Star Five (D.R. Congo), Rasselas & Helina (Ethiopia), Toum Kak Drummers (Cameroon), Boubacar Diabate (Senegal), Isaac Akrong (Ghana), Hassan el Hadi (Morocco), Adam Solomon & Tikisa Band (Kenya), Kache Kashala (D.R. Congo), Njacko Backo & Kalimba Kalimba (Cameroon), and of course, Beautiful Nubia and the Roots Renaissance Band(Nigeria).
Nine of the artistes, including my band, would be playing on Saturday July 5 while the other eight, including Chiweshe, would play on the final day.
Africa, Her Africa
The several conversations I had had on the phone with Nadine piqued my interest and, on my next trip to Toronto with Katherine, my manager, we decided to pay her a visit. We chose to meet at an Eritrean restaurant in the downtown area. I do not know what I had expected, but Nadine was not it. White, of medium height with pretty features and hair braided in the popular Yoruba Suku style, she exuded a love of Africa that is uncommon even in many home-grown Africans. With one hug we bonded like old friends. Nadine has such an engaging presence, and a face so animated you couldn’t ignore her. She is well known in the Toronto African community and we saw evidence of this as, one after another, people would walk by and greet her. She is Africa itself, not just in the original traditional beads around her neck but also in her thinking and world view. She seems to understand well the problems assailing Africa, especially artistic Africa, and she has paid her dues to the continent too, having spent several years amongst indigenous tribes in rural East Africa. Her commitment to Africa and her musicians is complete, and this is beyond pecuniary gains.
Her enthusiasm for Africa would shame most Nigerians whom I know. We are so much into being other people that we lose all sense of identity. We would rather embrace the artificial and empty cultures imposed on us by the mass media than seek answers in our own culture, music, and arts. We seem to love superficiality but here is a white Canadian who believes that if Africans would get their act together, there is a lot they can offer the world in terms of what is real that would bring global peace and understanding. I sat there entranced as she shared her thoughts with Katherine. They were a sight to behold, these two white Canadian women in love with Africa and her many rare gifts.
We were soon joined by South African-born international musician, Lempani. Like several other passers-by before him, he hailed Nadine and she invited him over. “Lempani can tell you how difficult it is for an African musician in Canada…he has been here for years…”, says Nadine. Lempani, who had also just returned from a recent playing stint in the UAE, was full of praises for Afrofest, “It is really a good thing that we have this festival you know. How many festivals are ready to showcase lesser known artistes? Well, how many are ready to showcase original African acts in the first place?”. Nadine corroborates, “A lot of the African artistes who are doing well today in North America have festivals like ours to thank for exposing them. Playing on our stage is a great opportunity to showcase your talents to industry experts and powerbrokers. Doors soon start to open afterwards”.
After a cappuccino and several hours of non-stop talking, we dispersed. The next day, however, we strayed into Nadine again at Harbourfront, one of the most prominent stages for any artist to play in the Toronto area. Harbourfront puts on huge events all year round, especially in the summer, and we had come up here in the hope of meeting and talking with its artistic director, Derrick Andrews. One of Canada’s newest rising African musicians, Burundian Mighty Popo, was plying his trade on stage. Popo lives in Ottawa like me; we had met at several shows and I had solicited his help in building a new band when it became clear I might not be able to bring my band over from Nigeria for the summer. You never know what to expect at a Mighty Popo show – one minute he is singing in his own language, the next he could be doing a Sunny Ade or a Bob Marley tune. Such dexterity!
Well, we did get to meet our man with the help of Nadine and the current President of the MusicAfrica board, Otimoi Oyemu, an amiable soft spoken man of Sudanese origin. A few hours later, back in Ottawa, I began in earnest my preparations for Afrofest. It was no longer just another gig. Having met Nadine and seen her passion and love for Africa and all things African, her festival became like a ritual I had to partake in and complete in flying colours.
July 5, Afrofest In The Park
It seemed like there was no way I was getting up from my bed this morning but somehow I did drag my weary mass up. A little splash of cold water and I was ready to go with a light throb in my head. The night before, after the ordeal of driving in a convoy of two cars from Ottawa to Toronto, I had subjected my body (and members of my band) to a final rehearsal with our Toronto-based crew; performed as a guest poet at the La Parole Poetry Series downtown on an empty stomach; and finally capped the night with a sizzling performance of acoustic palm wine music at the Nigerian-owned Planet Africa Night Club. Gordon Isiraoje, Planet Africa’s proprietor, is a rare type of Nigerian. Perhaps being an artist himself he recognises the pains we go through. We were well compensated for the two hour show we put up. We never made it to bed till the early hours of the next day, which explains why my head felt like a ton of bricks and why the sour taste in my mouth and sore throat gave me reason to fear I might put on an under-par performance in the evening.
This was unfounded, of course. Immediately I am onstage all such worries often disappear in a flux of adrenaline, and all I want to do is give the audience maximum benefit of my ability and the talent abundant in my band. For this show I had brought most members of my new band in Ottawa and three dexterous Toronto musicians would make up the rest. In the back of my mind, I wished I had my Nigerian band here – we have a greater level of understanding developed over time and many rehearsals. Building an interim band in Canada was not an option I had considered until it became clear my dream of having them with me was not to be. Over several months, in good or bad weather, I had worked with several friends and contacts in the Ottawa music industry to replicate my music as closely as possible with a new and amorphous band. Our performance here would determine how much we had achieved together as a group.
At 6pm we went back stage to prepare to go on. Meanwhile, on stage, the colourful Egyptian group Yasmina Ramzy & Arabesque was busy turning the audience crazy with their energetic music and exotic, enticing belly-dancers – whipping the audience into a twister of appreciative applause, whistles, and catcalls. They would be a tough act to follow. And then, as if this was not enough, the skies darkened at the end of their set and soon it began to rain.
I have always loved the rain. From my childhood, I have revelled in walking in the falling rain. Up until a couple of years ago, I would slip out of the house in Lagos whenever it rained so I could get wet and sing and be free. Somehow, for me, the rain has always conjured up images of renewal and freedom; it has always been my friend. Some members of my band did not, however, share my child-like fascination with the rain. Their fears were, of course, well founded. Here we were, playing our first major open-air gig as a group in Toronto in front of an audience that did not seem prepared for rain. The fear was that people would start leaving for shelters and we would end up playing to an empty park. Well, like I told you earlier, the rain has always been my friend. A few minutes after we were called on stage, the heavens suddenly dried out , the sun shone through again and the crowd was there in their glorious thousands waving hands and urging us on. Nadine had her own explanation for the sudden change though, “You know Otimoi is a rain-master. He did a few things and the rain receded”. Thanks to you then, Otimoi.
We did our last minute sound check. This for me is always that weightless period during which I morph personas. The regular, gentle looking fella’ suddenly transforms into a charged-up performer. Joey Taylor, a popular figure on the CBC’S Global Village programme introduced us with flowery words. I looked around at the audience, perhaps 5000 strong – perhaps more, perhaps less – but they were a pleasant looking lot. I have played venues where the audiences simply stare you down and you know you are in for some hard work. Somehow I knew this night would be a good one. Good shows always begin with a kind audience. (Nadine, once again has an opinion on this: “Oh, the great thing about Afrofest is that we have a lovely and cooperative audience. In all these years we have never had one single incident of assault or a fight or whatever and our artistes always leave feeling good”.)
One hour later, at the end of our set, I agreed with her. The audience was superb all through. They danced to every song, swayed to every beat, clapped and screamed for more. We opened with Owuro Lojo, one of our more popular songs, then did Jangbalajugbu and What A Feeling in a row. In introducing the next song, O Ya O! (one of my new compositions), I shared a few pre-song words with the audience, “We should not just accept every solution that our political leaders present to us, we must learn to sieve through the whole issue and take a position. We must learn to always question things, always ask why, why, why”.
The crowd roared its approval and, as the song progressed, I introduced the musicians on stage with me: Chief Kako, Nigerian, on congos; Ousmane Ali, Pakistani, on agogo and shekere; Vince, Italian, on drums; Roger William, Carribean, bass guitar; Babarinde Williams, Nigerian, trumpet; and on vocals, Zenaib Bawa, Ghanaian, Titilayo Ladeinde, and Toyin Ladeinde both Nigerian. It is funny what the sight of an audience does for a true artiste. In all our rehearsals we had never been very tight, but tonight we were so tight we amazed even ourselves.
We finished our set with another new song Awilele, and exited the stage to shouts, “Encore! All night!!”, which we could not acknowledge, knowing we would probably be overstaying our time. Downstage, I ran straight into the arms of autograph seekers and the Toronto radio station CUIT FM, who were transmitting the festival live. The highlight of the radio interview was the question, “So as an African, do you believe in polygamy?”. I leave you to guess the answer I gave the lady.
For the rest of the evening, I played host to many new fans and hung out with the band. That night I slept soundly. I believe everyone else in my team did too.
Stella In The Park
The next day I was back at the festival ground to do two things: I wanted to see Stella Chiweshe play and also spend time attending to fans who might come to our stand (we had been allotted a complimentary stand to market our album and band merchandise). It was not a day wasted, we sold more cds than anticipated and people kept referring their friends to go and buy ‘that new music’ from Nigeria. In the midst of this, several Nigerians also came around. Some, like Akin Alaga and Anthony Olusanya, enthusiastically embraced the music and seemed genuinely glad I was there to fly Nigeria’s flag. I also fondly remember two Igbo gentlemen who patronised our stand “to support a brother”. Yet there were also the other type of Nigerians whom I have commonly encountered in my travels, who will come to you, negative about everything and always offering advice on things they know little or nothing about. A particular group of Yorubas really got my goat with their advice that I should try “and play a distinct and known style, more like Obey or Sunny or Fela…”.
Such people I do not suffer gladly. I gave one of them a lecture in “keeping your unsolicited advice to yourself”. In Nigeria, it seems to me people are more willing to give you advice rather than assistance. It often takes exile for many of our talented people to find appreciation and fulfilment. I know I have not achieved superstar status in terms of sales and popularity but perhaps people should experience my work first and consider how many other people in the industry are taking on the same challenges I am. I think I have heard enough advice. Some assistance and support please!
Later that afternoon, Nadine waltzed her way to me. She was so full of joy. “How can I thank you?” she says, “You made me proud that I took a chance on you. You were one of the major surprises of the festival and the highlight of Saturday. Backstage, they were all talking about you. Believe me, you impressed many of the industry experts in the audience. I’m so proud of you!”. Those words stayed with me the whole day.
Stella Chiweshe brought the house down with her amazing performance. She is such a great artist to watch and listen to. She dispensed a variety of emotions, so touching you felt like crying. The rain started dropping again, in tiny drops, cooling my face, the rain my old friend, my soothing friend. “I want to be like this woman and many other great artistes before her and even greater still…”, I said to myself.
“Be still”, the rain whispered, “You will, you are…you are…”.
The rain, my friend. Ageless comfort, a true friend who dispenses more than empty words of advice.
For more info about Afrofest, please visit www.afrofest.org; for Beautiful Nubia and his music, please visit www.beautifulnubia.com.
Akinlolu’s travel photos
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