Back2Black Festival – Old Billingsgate Market, produced by the Barbican, London, June 29 – July 1 2012
By Helena Cantone
Back2Black is an exciting new festival that has arrived in London from Rio de Janeiro, where it first took place in 2009. The inspiration for the festival is to reinforce and celebrate the cultural connections between Africa and Brazil. Hosted by the Barbican here in London, Back2Black offered three full days of music with talks, poetry, food and crafts at Old Billingsgate Market on the banks of the Thames. Key acts included Gilberto Gil, Amadou & Mariam, Toumani Diabaté, Hugh Masekela, Femi Kuti, Gilles Peterson, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Denis Bovell Dub Band.
Saturday’s line-up opened with Fatoumata Diawara – a stunningly beautiful and talented Malian singer, now based in Paris. She sang sweetly, poignantly talking about the conflict taking place in Mali and the need for people to unite. Hugh Masekela followed; one of the fathers of Afro-beat jazz. At a ripe age of 73 he grooved and rocked the stage, playing some of his greatest hits including ‘Grazin’ in the Grass’ (1968) and a animated tribute to Fela Kuti’s ‘Lady’.
Mart’nália – daughter of sambista Martinho da Vila – delivered uplifting samba pieces and saudade classics especially for the “Brazilians in the house”. Home-grown Roots Manuva gave a strong musical performance despite his solitary role as the only black British artist of the night. By the evening, the crowd gathered around the main stage to hear the musical explosion of two very different artists: Criolo, featuring none other than Mulatu Astatke, and Femi Kuti & the Positive Force.
Criolo is one of those artists who crosses cultural and language barriers. Known as a hip hop Brazilian rap artist with a conscious soul, Criolo has taken Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke’s classics and funked them up to speak to new audiences – some of which, I overheard, didn’t know who Astatke was. Unfortunately, Astatke’s percussion and vibraphone were drowned by the overpowering sound system of Criolo and his crew. Nevertheless, you could see the joy of hearing his music being reinvented on Astatke’s smiling face, and equally the honour of this collaboration for Criolo.
Femi Kuti was the greatest surprise. Listening to Femi Kuti’s music digitally can leave some dissatisfied, wanting to hear the ‘real thing’. Seeing him live will certainly convert you. Femi is following on his father’s legacy with the big, brassy, rhythmically charged Afro-beat band, the incredible female dancers and backing vocalists and, of course, the politically, socially conscious storytelling protest-songs of the bandleader. Dedicating the night to one of the oldest band members who had recently passed away, Femi Kuti condemned the corruption of politicians and bankers; promoted the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS; and ended with a story about pre-ejaculation and how to improve sexual performance with the simple act of “withdrawing”!
It would be great to see Back2Black become part of the British summer festival scene in years to come.