If African music is often wildly joyful and uplifting, its myriad variations were largely born from a history of slavery and suffering, imperialism and immigration. It’s a songline that stretches from South African townships to the Mississippi cotton fields and the favelas of Brazil to the streets of Brixton.
The stories and glories of African music and its global off-shoots will be celebrated in London from June 29-July 1, when a host of singers and players from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean come together for the Back2Black festival.
The three-day carnival will be hosted by Gilberto Gil, an elder statesman of Brazilian music, who has held the event in Rio de Janeiro for the past two years and has teamed up with the Barbican arts center to bring it to the British capital.
The halls of Old Billingsgate Fishmarket will reverberate to the beat of funk, reggae, dub, hip-hop, samba, blues and jazz from artists such as South African Hugh Masekela, Mali’s Amadou and Mariam, US R’n’B star Macy Gray and Nigeria’s Femi Kuti. “One thing about African music, it’s so eclectic. It involves different rhythms, chanting. You might not buy the records but it’s the kind of music everyone can enjoy,” Gray told Reuters in a telephone call from Los Angeles.
“It’s also about politics and freedom. That makes it interesting — you get someone else’s view of the world,” said Gray, who performed at the Rio de Janeiro festival last year.
The idea to hold Back2Black in London arose when the Barbican approached Gil about performing there.
“He told us ‘there’s a project I’m involved in, why not check it out?,” said Bryn Ormrod, the Barbican’s head musical program. “So we thought let’s bring it to London, with Gilberto Gil as the figurehead.”
Gil’s original concept aimed to make Brazilians more aware of the African influence on their culture. The vast Latin American country has the world’s largest black population outside of Africa — a legacy of the slave trade — but despite its image as a melting-pot nation, discrimination is still rife.
The London version of Back2Black will have a strong emphasis on Britain’s connections with Africa and the Caribbean, a relationship forged through the dubious enterprise of the British Empire.
“We want to focus on Britain’s history and its deep relationship with Africa. So rather than Mozambique and Angola, we have South African, Nigerian, Caribbean artists,” Ormrod said.
Leading the Caribbean connection will be Lynton Kwesi Johnson, a poet from London’s Brixton neighborhood, where many immigrants from Jamaica and other West Indian islands set up home in the 1960s and 1970s.
He delivers his verse in Jamaican patois and tells of the experience of being an Afro-Caribbean in London. He will perform with his longtime musical partner, reggae veteran Dennis Bovell.
The festival will also showcase “The Story of the Blues” tracing the music’s journey from Africa to the Mississippi delta and featuring Mali’s Vieux Farka Toure, known as the Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara.
The Rio de Janeiro shows were held in the disused Leopoldina railway station. At Billingsgate, the artists will perform on three stages and the old market building will be decorated with art, projections, photographs and graffiti to evoke an urban Brazil setting.
There will also be a series of talks, including a conversation on musicians in exile with Masekela, who spent years overseas while South Africa was under apartheid rule, and Gil, who lived in London during Brazil’s military dictatorship.