This year was one breath-taking summer for arts, music, dance and fashion festivals in London. What is more? The recently concluded third edition of the Africa Utopia Festival was one of the capital's forthright and most spectacular festival ever, celebrating all aspect of the creative arts industry.
Africa Utopia was a creative explosion of Jedi proportion that featured performance arts, music, dance, fashion, theatre, visual-techno art exhibition, family events and mouth-watering food market and much more besides. The whole shebang was spread out - in the streets, galleries, library, public buildings, and every available space and corner of London’s most vibrant cultural quarters – The Southbank Centre. This four-day fiesta enthused by the African continent and Diaspora delved into the dynamic and ever-changing contribution of modern Africa to art, culture and ultimately to our society. Organisers hope the festival will also help make connections between artists and activists, get more accessible; to engage.
Discussions and debates deliberated on sustainability vs profit, digital journalism and digital activism, youth education and power to African feminism. Furthermore, in a nod to the present refugee crisis, the migration debate asked the question: “Why do people flee? What awaits them where, and if they reach their destination?” It’s a question for us all to ponder on at this time. The Talks/Debates consisted of defining speakers including the traditional suspect, journalist, author and arts programmer Ethiopian-born Hannah Pool, who must be noted has been involved in Africa Utopia from the very start. Next in line is singer-song-writer and UN Ambassador for HIV/AIDS Malian, Baaba Maal, who also has been involved with AU from its birth. As well as Jude Kelly CBE, Artistic Director, Southbank Centre. The lot are experts in contemporary art, art history, music and green politics, each addressing the historical relevance of arts and culture - including the power of art in activism and the role of women and young people who have made a huge contribution to our arts as part of our lives and still motivates us all in creating future change. These themes are conceived to appeal to taste, of all ages, colour, cultural aficionados and newcomers alike.
Even more so, the tune line-up was a must-hear for anyone and everyone fascinated by great live performing. First on stage was Malian singer Kassé Mady Diabaté of royal stock and acknowledged as one of West Africa's finest singers. He was accompanied by fellow Malians: Ballaké Sissoko, a noted player of the kora; Lansiné Kouyaté performing on Kora & Balafon (The balafon, also known as balafo is a wooden xylophone - percussion idiophone from West Africa) and Makan Tounkara, a gifted composer, arranger, singer, and n'goni artiste. (The n’goni, an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa). To bring the festival to a close was the master of it all - Nigeria’s Tony Allen with friends. And oh boy were they great!
Tony, is a skilful drummer, composer and songwriter and once musical director of late Fela Anikulapo Kuti's band Africa 70 from 1968 to 1979. Furthermore, he’s famed as the powerhouse behind the late Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat movement. It’s recognised that Fela said: “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat music”. In alliance with Tony on stage; Baaba Maal, multi award-winning singer/song writer and Toumani Diabaté, a Malian kora player, genius of African music and widely recognised as the greatest living kora player. And in a rare father-and-son kora-playing collaboration, Toumani Diabaté and his son Sidiki Diabaté put down a spell-binding presentation. It was a mind-blowing ensemble. A-ma-zing! And to put the last bit on the Tony Allen and friend’s fusion was French star rapper Oxmo Puccino (born Abdoulaye Diarra) a hip hop musician born in Mali. The whole shebang brought the house down. It was a high octane musical extravaganza of fantastic proportion that received a rapturous reception at every song and every notes that rings out. These musicians nailed and killed it in equal measures. There was an eight minute standing ovation. For a man who turned 75 in August, Tony Oladipo Allen, is remarkably springily. He still hits the studio (and treadmill, I suppose) every day. He is just as you’d imagine, small, frail and thin looking, dressed in a classic white African traditional classic number with bold abstract designs and he outdone it with a white Fedora Hat. Maybe this is what comes from churning out some five gigs a year for over 50 years. He has delivered some of the music most indelible music albums and concerts from Africa to Europe and North America to Australia and the Americas – straight-up.
With all the serious shows and presentations that took place, however, the three that stood-out for the festival – in my modest view - are the music performances and fashion presentation curated by Samson Saboye, of Nigerian parentage, from Shoreditch-London. Soboye brings together a team of leading designers from Africa and the African Diaspora to present an inspirational and exciting women’s wear, menswear and accessories.
“I’ve been a Fashion Stylist for many years now with a spell designing and manufacturing soft furnishings, which led me to open SOBOYE.
Africa Utopia is a great showcase to celebrate the importance and significance African Culture to the rest of the World. London has the highest population of African nationals from all over the continent and the contribution that Africans have made to the city is noteworthy. Our presentation is called DIASPORA CALLING! A presentation of African Contemporary style, inspired by Street Style photography. Our show producer Agnes Cazin from Haiti 73 Agency conceived the concept as we were searching of different ways to present fashion that was away from a traditional catwalk show. We are showing the diversity of Africa that will linger on even after the festival: the Joy, the vibrancy and richness of its people, who mostly have an innate sense of style that is not dictated by the latest trends or Designer head-to-looks. The Modern Style-conscious African’s style is a mash-up of pop culture, vintage clothes, self-made fashion and images fed daily through Instagram and Pinterest, of which they are fully engaged in. All these influences are absorbed in to the visual memory banks and stored for future referencing at any time. This then in turn manifests itself in the Individualist looks that we see influencing mainstream Western style today”.
On the small matter of who SOBOYE designs for: “SOBOYE designs are for the fashion savvy, confident, style literate person, with their fingers on the pulse and a zest for life. The Women’s wear came a year after the Men’s collection and is designed in collaboration with Designer and friend Chi Chi Chinakwe”. (A moniker moment in this festival is the premiere of Chineke, the UK’s first professional classical orchestra made up entirely of musicians of African descent and minority ethnic classical artists performed a tribute to the black teenager Steven Lawrence that was murdered in a raciest attack in 1995) Soboye expressed: “Our customers tend be in the creative industries and have an eye for well fitting, original clothes with an attention to detail. Our clothes add to the enjoyment of dressing up and I’ve yet to see someone wear any of our pieces and not look and feel better for wearing them… Sidney Poitier is my all-time style icon. Not only was he well-dressed, he always carried himself with such dignity and broke so many barriers by being such an accomplished actor. Currently Pharrell Williams and Solange Knowles would both be great brand ambassadors for SOBOYE." So if they are both reading this come on in… we are waiting for you. Yes, of course they read roomsmagazine.com.
Beside ambitious philosophy in the horizon: What does the future hold for Samson Soboye? “We plan to expand our online business and build the brand. We’d like to secure good investment to consolidate the business and allow for expansion and growth and for that to be manageable. We’d like to be the ‘go-to’ brand for the talented, ambitious discerning globe trotter “.