“We can’t foresee what will happen in terms of potential funding cuts in the arts sector, so we have to plan very carefully. But Oyé’s not just about us putting on a festival – it’s about Liverpool as a city. A city which, I think, has the best cultural offering in the UK right now and, no matter what’s around the corner, I know there will always be an audience who love the ethos of Oyé and are proud to have it in their hometown.” Paul Duhaney, artistic director of Africa Oyé, is talking about the vicissitudes of putting on a free festival.
It’s getting harder all the time. However, this is one cultural offering that has moved with the times and developed with each passing year: “We always try and add something new every year and have the festival grow and evolve,” reveals Paul. “The growth of Twitter and Instagram has given us more and more scope to get our events out there to the masses without spending too much money.” Africa Oyé, back at Sefton Park on June 18/19 this year, has come a long way since its inception as a series of smaller events in intimate city venues.
Oyé is now well established as one of the main rays of sunshine in a Scouse summer and 2016 is set to be no different. We’ve taken a look at the something new the festival will offer this year elsewhere, here we discuss the old, borrowed and blue(s) with the festival’s artistic director…
You first started with Oyé in the nineties. What brought you to Liverpool?
I was originally working in the events and music industry in London and living with my girlfriend – now wife – and we decided to move to Liverpool for a fresh start. Two weeks after the move, I saw a job advertisement for a trainee at Africa Oyé… and the rest is history.
Did you have a background in African music and culture?
When I started with Oyé, Kenny Murray (the festival’s founder) gave me a crash course in music from all across Africa and I quickly realised that there’s no such thing as ‘African’ music – it’s like saying ‘American’ music… there are so many different sounds and styles, from so many different countries.
You’d worked as a DJ, too, hadn’t you?
Yes and I’ve always been into my music. But, a lot of what Kenny introduced me to, didn’t get a lot of airplay in the 90s when I was DJing. Without the Internet allowing so much instant access to different kinds of music, like it does now, it was very different.
Speaking of the Internet: how has the rise of social media affected the growth and direction of the festival?
I always thought the most powerful tool we had for promotion was word-of-mouth and, certainly in the festival’s formative years, it was like that. The Internet and social media has made that word-of-mouth so much easier to ‘see’, as it were. Back in the early years, we were having to send print materials across the country just to make people outside Liverpool aware of us and the costs implications limited our reach… it’s still a hard balancing act to keep up the quality and size of the festival without overspending.
Back then, did you have a vision for what Africa Oyé could become?
Not in the first few years, as the audiences were so small. It was impossible to foresee what has happened – even though we knew the music was great, people just weren’t giving it a try. But, I always said, that as soon as people came to see us once they’d come back: and it seems to be that’s the way it’s transpired.
Moving to Sefton Park was a major development…
It was always our philosophy to make the festival fully inclusive, to get as many people from different walks of life to our event, and since we’ve been in Sefton Park in particular, that’s when we really saw its potential and how it could become one of the biggest events on the festival calendar in the north west. We have fantastic support from Arts Council England and Liverpool City Council funding, too, but we’re always trying to increase our self-generated income through the trading pitches, merchandise and sponsorship.
Tell us how it feels at the end of Sunday night when about 80,000 people have passed through the park?
An overwhelming relief! It’s honestly quite difficult for me to enjoy it properly until that final act is on and it’s mentally very tiring putting it all together. We all get a couple of weeks afterwards to reflect and enjoy the feeling of a successful year…
And then the plans for next year start?
The organisation moves so quickly now, we’re pretty much straight back into work planning the next tour, planning workshops and then, of course, the beginnings of next year’s festival.
Back to the main event, though: what makes a festival of Oyé’s size a success?
Good governance and making sure you’re on top of all the relevant licenses and legislation. Making sure your budgets are realistic and you have contingencies is vital, too. And, of course, the artistic quality of whatever you’re putting on.
You’ve had some great artistic quality over the years. Does anything special stand out?
Tinariwen’s performances in 2003 and 2004 stick in my mind. Not only because of how good they were, but because of how big they went on to become and we were the first in the UK to book them. They spent about a week in Liverpool and we had them play in Concert Square and at The Magnet… not just the festival. I’ve seen them on my travels since, at festivals all around the world, and they always come and say ‘hey’ and talk about how much they love Oyé.
Africa Oyé, Sefton Park, Liverpool
June 18th – 19th 2016
Pic by Ged Doyle