It is an event that organisers hope will mark the beginning of a new era for the Africa Centre in London.
Its first ever Summer Festival is to showcase some of Africa’s biggest new talents, including Nigerian singing sensation Nneka.
The free, two day event is being staged as the Africa Centre prepares to move out of its historic base at Covent Garden’s 38 King St, which it sold last year for £10m amid much rancour.
While it searches for a new central London home, it is rolling out a fresh vision for the future that, says chair of the board of trustees Oliver Andrews, seeks to harness the energy of the “African Renaissance”.
“Now that the Africa Centre is in a financially sustainable position for the long term, we are enlivening our programme to attract wider stakeholder participation, especially amongst the next generation of Africaphiles,” he said.
Two years ago, trustees were cast in the role of villains as they pressed ahead with the sale in defiance of campaigners who wanted the Africa Centre to stay where it was.
Now that the dust has settled, some of those who supported the Save Africa Campaign have crossed the floor, including Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth artist Yinka Shonibare, the festival’s curator.
For him, headline act Nneka, whose music fuses a myriad of styles, from hip hop and afrobeat to flamenco, represents the exciting new talent emerging from Africa: “Not a pleasing, traditional Africa, but a challenging, provocative Africa, reflecting the progressive modernism that has emerged post-independence,”
He was proud to be associated with the Africa Centre’s drive to celebrate Africa’s contemporary dynamism, he added.
Afropop outfit DRB Lasgidi, Congolese dance band Kasai Masai (also pictured) and DJ Edu, the anchor for BBC 1Xtra’s Destination Africa, are among the line up of acts due to perform in the main festival venue, the Covent Garden Piazza, on August 3-4.
A fashion show, compliments of London’s African Fashion Week, an exhibition of contemporary photography and art, film screenings as well as an assortment of arts and craft stalls all add up to a packed weekend of events aiming to set the tone for a revitalised Africa Centre.
Gifted to “the people of Africa” by a Catholic charity, 38 King St was opened by Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda in 1964. Within a short time the Africa Centre became a cultural and political hub for Africans in the diaspora, hosting a succession of landmark events that have now become the stuff of legend.
On one occasion, the Senegalese poet turned president, Leopold Senghor, unexpectedly turned up at a talk on African music and, once spotted in the audience, agreed, to deliver an impromptu lecture on rhythm. On another, Alice Walker read from her book the Colour Purple, while Jazzie B’s Saturday club nights helped launch him onto the international stage.
But over time the Africa Centre became mired in financial troubles, not helped by the cost of maintaining its18th century grade 11 listed building.
Despite the sale of the rear of the building in Floral St and a series of rescue packages, the Africa Centre limped into the last decade a shadow of its former self.
When news of the proposed sale leaked out, trustees were probably unprepared for the storm of protest that followed. A high profile campaign supported by Desmond Tutu, who talked nostalgically of his days at the centre as a young anti-apartheid campaigner, was launched, insisting that a move away from its iconic HQ was out of the question.
Campaigners were also dismayed that would-be purchasers, Covent Garden property magnates Capital and Counties, wanted to turn the building into a store.
An alternative proposal to refurbish the premises, backed by a consortium of African businesses and designed by architect David Adjaye, was put on the table but eventually withdrawn.
Then in June last year, it was announced that the Africa Centre was considering moving in with the Royal Commonwealth Society in nearby Northumberland Avenue, whose lease it would purchase from money raised by the sale. Despite being hailed as a marriage made in heaven, talks broke down between the two sides.
With 38 King St due to be vacated in September, the search is on for a new base. “Certainly there will be a new building by the time we celebrate our 50th anniversary next year,” said Kaye Whiteman, a longstanding trustee.
“We would very much like to stay in Westminster but given the squeeze on property we are looking further afield in central London, places like Shoreditch and Clerkenwell.”
Like fellow trustees he is optimistic about the future. “Difficult decisions have had to be made. But a new phase has been entered and we have to make sure we stay on the right track.”
Acknowledging that lessons had been learned from the Save Africa Campaign, he added, “We all wanted to to save the Africa Centre. It is clear that in a very special way it belongs to the community and we have to respond to that community.”
First published by West End Extra on July 25 2013