For a quarter of a century, AFRICA OYÉ has been a vibrant, buzzing fixture in Merseyside’s summer calendar, bringing music and culture from across the African diaspora to a warm and friendly audience. Paul Duhaney, the organiser behind The Friendly Festival, speaks to us about that unique Oyé feeling.
“No, never in a month of Sundays,” is Paul Duhaney’s reply when I ask the festival’s principal organiser if he thought he’d see the day that AFRICA OYÉ reached its 25th anniversary. “When I started, it had been going for about six years, and I’d tell people where I was working and they’d say ‘what’s that?’ – it was almost an overground movement going on around the city that only a couple of hundred people knew about.”
In its formative years, Oyé mainly took place in Birkenhead Park, as an add-on to an event called the Balloon Festival – and the audience numbers were far from the tens of thousands it sees today. Prior to that it had been held in Princes Park and in smaller venues around the city centre like the Picket and Hardman House. When Paul joined, the festival was still in Birkenhead, but with few funds to tap into over the water, they moved the event back to Liverpool: “We wanted to come back to the city to be honest, because that meant that everybody could access it easier. And that’s where the festival was born, after all.”
Setting up home in Concert Square, it quickly outgrew its city centre location and, sometimes, jarred with its environment. The move to Sefton Park seemed a natural fit. “We never had one ounce of trouble, it passed off really peacefully. But it just outgrew Concert Square. We did it there for two years and we needed a bigger space,” Paul explains. “So then we moved to Sefton Park – originally by the Palm House – and within a few years it got too big for that site as well.”
A story of constant growth and movement, it was 2008 that the festival relocated to its current home of the Review Field in Sefton Park, and they’ve been in that leafy south Liverpool bowl ever since. “I’ve just seen it steadily grow through all those times, and I’ll be honest, for the first 10 years, it was mainly through word of mouth. Someone going to the festival and telling their friends about it, in Manchester, or Birmingham or something like that, and then coming back with double the amount of friends the next year. Almost like a secret festival that nobody really knew about, because we didn’t really PR it – well, we probably did a few posters in town, but nothing more than that.”
It was around 2010 that they saw it really beginning to catch fire, with numbers steadily on the rise and its profile as the UK’s largest celebration of live music from the African diaspora (and all for free) well cemented. Now it counts 50,000 attendees over its two days each summer, but it’s been a slow build to get to that point. “When we started to promote it outside of the city as well, you saw the audience grow even more because, coupled with the local community, all the people that live around the environs of the park are from really diverse communities. It’s a perfect place to bring everybody together.”
The results from the last audience survey they did, in 2011, are telling. Around 27% of the visitors to the festival came from outside of the Merseyside area – and 11% of the overall crowd that year had come from outside of the UK. Given that the profile of Oyé and the city region has grown exponentially since then, those numbers are unlikely to have gone down. “Someone came on a boat from Haiti because their favourite Haitian act was playing! It gives me so much pleasure to hear that people come from far away, as well as the core local audience.” Of course, bringing people from shore to shore is a point of pride but Paul is quick to attest to the importance of Liverpool’s community presence: “What would be bad is if you had loads of people coming from outside of the city and no one from the city at all. I wouldn’t like that. I always want the heartbeat, if you like, of the festival, to be full of people from the city.”
People in Liverpool have a massive affection for Oyé, a swelling pride in hosting a celebration of Africa’s diverse and storied cultures, a place where all are invited to sample sounds and sights and tastes from the African diaspora. They’re never satiated either, they go back year on year on year – it’s never a case of ‘been once, seen it all’, there is always more to learn, to listen to, to enjoy. Never mind an institution – it’s the beat of the city throughout the summer. A place of pure joy for everyone from teens to families, to hardened festival nuts, to the all-important multicultural communities that live around Oyé’s Sefton Park home.
“I think the music creates some sort of ambience that almost hypnotises people into smiling,” Paul offers on its mass appeal. “I remember a friend of mine came up a couple of years ago from London, he’d never attended before, and he’s used to going to festivals in London where trouble kicks off at the drop of a hat and its heavy security and police presence. And you’re always on edge. But he came up here and half way through the day, I just saw him standing, looking out at the crowd, and he goes to me: ‘Everybody’s smiling! Why’s everybody so happy?!’ And I said, ‘You know what, I’ve never even thought of that.’ And he goes, ‘You could call it Happy Festival, man, because I’ve never seen so many people from so many different walks of life just smiling.’”
This isn’t news to us, and won’t be to anyone who’s ever attended. There’s a contagiousness to Oyé’s energy; it exudes positivity, rain or shine. You can’t help but enjoy what’s going on, because there’s an amazing buzz about the festival. It just feels, smells and vibrates like nothing else. “You don’t even have to see it,” Paul says, nodding in agreement. It’s not only its varied musical acts that makes it such a vibrant occasion – the Oyé Village of food stalls, fair trade shops, and watering holes lend their spark to proceedings. “They complement it, don’t they? I think Oyé Village was something we wanted to create when we saw the way that the traders worked. You’ve got the combination of food from all over the world, drink, arts and crafts, drums, clothing – you know, even guys selling fresh coconuts.” It’s an all-sensory, immersive, feel good experience. “You can just hear the drums, you can smell the food, you can hear people just enjoying themselves – it’s like a proper festival.” Paul is doing his work a disservice – Oyé is a proper festival.
“You know you asked did I ever think it was going to get this big?”, he confesses, “after about five or six years, I actually did see that vision of it being the way it is now – or that’s what we wanted to create. Where everybody could come, it’s fully inclusive… it’s just basically a big amnesty of everybody coming together for that one weekend and nobody’s casting aspersions at anyone. It’s that one weekend where nobody’s looking down on anyone and nobody wants to cause any trouble and it’s just a beautiful atmosphere.”
Inclusivity is the key word here, and it’s what makes Oyé’s appeal so broad. ‘See you at Oyé,’ is such a common phrase around Liverpool in June, because it’s a given that local residents, music fans, open-minded people, families and children will all be there. “One of the things that someone once said to me that I thought was a really nice way of phrasing it, was that it’s almost like, you know at Christmas, you see all your family? This is almost the Liverpool family – it’s like Christmas Day, you go up and finally after the year everyone’s together.” It’s not the only analogy that’s been used to describe Oyé’s community feel: “My mate was at an event – it was a wedding – and he said, ‘The only time I ever see people is at weddings, funerals, and Oyé.’ I thought that was a classic!”
Occasionally, you spy Paul wandering round the Review Field, mingling with the traders and chatting to people in the crowd – when he gets some time away from managing the logistics of what is a huge undertaking. I wonder if he still notices that unique Oyé buzz when he’s there? Can the senses ever get used to a sensation as deeply positive as Oyé creates?
“Yeh, definitely. And I like newbies going there as well, I like people who have the experience for the first time – and they come up to you and go, ‘Oh, this is absolutely unbelievable!’ and get really hyped by it – I love to see that. I love walking around and enjoying the atmosphere, because I didn’t used to be able to do that back in the day – we just didn’t have the staff. Me and the guy who founded it, Kenny [Murray], would be running about doing everything, so we wouldn’t even have time to see or take in the bands that we’d booked. Even though we knew them, obviously, we’d seen them before. But now I really do make sure that I get to see every band perform – not the whole set, but at least a good portion of it. And just take in the atmosphere and look at the audience reaction, that real nice buzz.”
For their 25th birthday party, the festival has invited back some of its most illustrious acts over the years. Zimbabwean Afro-fusion group MOKOOMBA return to Oyé after an acclaimed headline set in 2013, while Kinshasa pioneers JUPITER & OKWESS INTERNATIONAL make a swift comeback following their stunning performance at Oyé ‘14. Ivorian singer, dancer, musician and Grammy-winner, DOBET GNAHORÉ, who performed in 2005 will return to Liverpool as will Angolan icon, BONGA, who played in 2011. They’re joined by reggae royalty JULIAN MARLEY and living legend living legend DIZZY MANDJEKU and his magnificent 12-piece band ODEMBA OK JAZZ ALL-STARS. It’s a star-studded line-up and testament to the festival’s wide and vibrant palate.
As for building on Oyé’s legacy, what more can you do to add on to 25 years of progress and making people happy? The answer, for Paul, is to keep growing the offer – but by small, incremental steps that feel like a natural evolution. “I don’t want it to ever feel fragmented, because I think part of the atmosphere is that everything’s in one site – even though it takes ages to move from one side of the field to the other!” The days of Oyé hopping around to find a home seem to be over – and the days of Oyé as a fixture look to be certain and sure.
“So as long as we can fit everything in within that site, we’ll keep building it there, and hopefully keep progressing and continue to be one of the most important events on the Liverpool cultural calendar.” We’re sure this vision will make a lot of people happy.
Africa Oyé takes place at Sefton Park on 17th and 18th June.