Thursday, 18 February 2010

Interview with Guy Morley - Artistic consultant on Africa Soul Rebels

African acts have gained much coverage in the last few years. Amadou and Mariam have recently recorded with Manu Chau and Damon Albarn and the Africa Express events have brought acts like Franz Ferdinand and Magic Numbers onto the same stage as Tinariwen and Toumani Diabate at Glastonbury and beyond. Africa Express itself was set up partly in response to the failure of Live 8's organisers to properly involve African Acts in 2005 but things seem to be begining to change as bands like Vampire Weekend blatantly incorporate African highlife rythms into their sound and take it to the top of the pop charts while acts such as Staff Bendi Bilili and the aforementioned Tinariwen are staging their own theatre tours around the UK.

Much of this success must be down to the annual African Soul Rebels tour which selects three acts each year to tour together for a minimal ticket price so that people can see the very best that the continent has to offer. Having been to a number of these events myself I can testify to the superb musicianship and fantastic performances that these events provide. This year's tour kicks off this week with one of its strongest line-ups yet featuring Mali's Oumou Sangare, the mighty Orchestre Poly Rythmo from Benin and the Kalahari Surfers from South Africa. I caught up with Guy Morley who is the artistic consultant for Music Beyond Mainstream who stage the tour.

African Soul Rebels has been running for six years now – what inspired you to put on such a tour?

The idea came from a meeting of venues, music agents, record labels and promoters. We all thought that African Music needed to be brought out from the ‘world music’ niche. If it was to develop bigger audiences and cross over – it needed to be called what it was – ie great rock, hip-hop, afrobeat, pop etc.

What is your philosophy in putting the tour together?

The idea is to bring a wide range of music and style that show the diversity of African popular music.Pushing African issues to the for front – challenge a few preconceptions about Africa – and finally show Africa is nearly 60 counties – more than a thousand languages and is much richer, in many ways, than we might first think.

How do you choose the acts each year?

We look for a balance and a line up that makes for a sum of more than its parts. for example – someone new and upcoming even if they are a band who have been around for 45 years like Poly Rythmo this year. Although they might be a big name now - when we toured Amadou and Mariam they were only just starting to break through and had never toured the UK. An established name artist who wants to challenge the way they are perceived.Salif Kieta toured a project that fused an American country sound into his music for his ASR tour. Oumou Sangare will find a new audience who love her music this year. Then we try to find the unexpected – great Afro Hip Hop from Awadi or Daara J – Benga Rock Fusion from Extra Golden or this year Electronica from Kalahari Surfers.

Who do you think has provided the defining performance over the years in your opinion?

In the team that puts these things together we all have our favourites.Time and place are important too. For some it’s afrobeat like Femi Kuti and Tony Allen – for others it’s the acoustic beauty of Baaba Maal or Salif Kieta.

Do you think African music has reached a ‘tipping point’ in recent years with breakthrough acts like Mariam and Amadou and Salif Kieta?

Let’s not take it for granted because there is a fashion cycle to it all. We are pleased that ASR gets press and people like the idea. There are so many great artists out there – and so many who have been forgotten – that all of us involved in ASR feel the need to push the envelope a little further.

This year you’ve secured Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou who have only very limited experience of playing in Europe despite a long and successful career. Was it difficult to secure them – is it a risk putting them on?

Timing is important – and it was the right time for Poly Rythmo this year. In bringing a band like them we need an audience who supports ASR not just the people who come for one artist or another. I try to talk to as many people as I can – at gigs to find out what they think. I’m so happy when I find people who haven’t been to an African concert before – or who have come not knowing much about the artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people come away from this year’s concerts feeling that have discovered a great new artist like Poly Rythmo – That’s got to be worth any risk.

Is the tour financially sound or is it a real struggle to break even?

Everyone invests in the tour. It’s a huge logistic to tour over 30 people round the UK. Artists, who often get paid well in the rest of Europe, do it for much less money, venues don’t always break even – They do it to develop audiences and their profiles and to support great artists. Music Beyond Mainstream puts in quite a bit of subsidy from Arts Council England – so Yes – it’s always a well worth while struggle to break even.

Have you considered an Asian Soul Rebels or Latin Soul Rebels?

We have and one day we might –In the mean time we have to work out; is the world big enough for more than one Soul Rebels idea? and will we dilute it by spreading it too far?

So there you have it - if you've not been to one of these events there are still a few tickets left so dig out the cost of a CD and go see some truly life afirming performances!

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