by Martin O
A summer of West African music that marks the city as a hotbed of alternative culture
The last time Manchester Airport hit the headlines was for a very recent, unfortunate fuel shortage (which nevertheless only led to 30 flights being affected).
Yet reporters at the airport in early June should have been paying attention to the visitors coming in rather than the planes queuing up to fly out from the North West’s most buzzing city.
June 2nd saw the beginning of a summer-long celebration of West African art and music which welcomes stars such as Femi Kuti (see lead photo) and Afrobeat supergroup AfroCubism. It’s one of the most exciting cultural festivals to be happening this summer, with uplifting, body-bothering music that will make you want to dance (and think!).
The celebration, an integral part of the Cultural Olympiad, explores the links between Manchester and West Africa, taking its name, ‘We Face Forward’, from a speech by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, who emphasised Ghana’s independence from the Cold War superpowers with the statement:
“We face neither East nor West. We face forward.”
Yet what makes this festival a standout in the summer cultural programme is its interest in the confluence between past, present and future: the links between West Africa and Manchester have not always been happy, or artistic ones.
As one of the British Empire’s busiest ports, Manchester was also at the heart of the slave trade before 1833 saw the Slavery Abolition Act introduced in Parliament.
As the festival website also points out, there are more contemporary political links between the regions too: in 1945, Manchester hosted the Pan-African Congress (an organisation whose major concern – African independence and brotherhood – was key to Nkrumah’s own career).
We Face Forward takes these roots and diffuses them through contemporary art from Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Cameroon – and music from Senegal, Nigeria, Congo, and the UK.
Topping the bill, and kicking off the festival on Sunday June 3rd, was the much-anticipated AfroCubism, a collaboration between Cuban legends Buena Vista Social Club’s Eliades Ochoa and Mali’s Toumani Diabaté.
Other dates to look forward to include August 3rd, with a Senegalese double bill from Diabel Cissokho and Carlou D; and prior to that, Femi Kuti, son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who comes to The HMV Ritz on July 4th with his band The Positive Force.
One of the festival’s biggest appeals is its combination of live acts and music with ongoing exhibitions and opportunities to participate in a more casual (or less meticulously planned-and-booked) way.
Manchester’s 19th-century red brick buildings house some of the city’s best art galleries and cultural spaces, and the juxtaposition of African colour and Industrial Revolution architecture is framed by the art curated in We Face Forward.
The Guardian’s Helen Nugent focuses on the Whitworth’s contribution to the vast array of contemporary art on display. The Whitworth Gallery, located on Oxford Road in Manchester, just south of the city centre, is at the heart of celebrations.
Hosting works by over 30 artists, it’s a hub to head to if you’re going to miss the music dates but want to catch the festival at its fullest. Most eye-catching is Pascale Martin Tayou’s installation The World Falls Apart, which creates a forest inside the museum which extends into the park behind.
It’s also in an area with some great music history, and a few rock’n’roll venues worth sticking your head in. Big Hands, at 296 Oxford Road, is a good place to end a very big or messy night.
If you’re a bit beyond student or punk days, then head back towards the city’s trendy Northern Quarter to Oldham Street, where the ever-buzzing Night and Day café serves up great club nights, acoustic sets and gigs throughout the week.
If you’re looking for a hotel near Manchester, consider the Crowne Plaza Manchester Airport hotel.