It was great to see the Nigerian singer Asa at the Africa Centre’s third Summer Festival in London over the weekend. The crowd erupted into cheers as soon as she walked on the stage with her ukelele singing Fire on the Mountain, one of her best known songs.
And so it went on, her pure and soulful vocals lighting up Covent Garden Piazza as darkness fell. It was a rousing end to the all-day extravaganza showcasing sounds from across the continent, including Azonto star Fuse ODG from Ghana and Simo Lagnawi playing traditional Moroccan music with a twist. The festival is intended as a reminder of the Africa Centre’s historic roots in Covent Garden, having opened in the early ’60s and gone on to host the continent’s major literary, artistic and political figures over the decades. At one time, it was also one of the few places where you could experience African cuisine or dance to African music, and where you might even bump into a president doubling up as a citizen of the world.
This is why, after the musical high, I felt sad as I made my way home past No. 38 King Street, where the Africa Centre once stood. Three years ago, it was controversially sold for a reported £10m and now is in the process of being converted into a high-end clothing store. A campaign to Save the Africa Centre produced an alternative refurbishment plan backed by Hadeel Ibrahim, the daughter of Sudanese mobile phone magnate Mo Ibrahim, but to no avail. The Africa Centre board of trustees, faced with mounting financial challenges, believed the cash raised from the sale of the Grade ll listed building would enable it to move to alternative premises in the West End and still have money left over.
However, they didn’t reckon that London’s property market would get even crazier and quickly found themselves completely out priced from central London. After a proposed merger with the former Royal Commonwealth Society, south of Trafalgar Square, fell through trustees next set their sights on trendy inner London areas like Shoreditch. But this appears to be out of their reach, too, and the Africa Centre, such as it is, is currently based at the Rich Mix arts venue in Bethnal Green, which is itself under threat of closure.
When the Africa Centre opened as a “home away from home” and cultural hub for the African diaspora, Covent Garden was a lively if tatty fruit and veg market. In fact No. 38 King St itself had once served as a banana warehouse. The market was moved in 1974 and two-thirds of the area was earmarked for demolition, including most of the fine 18th and 19th century buildings in and around the Italian style arcaded square known as the Piazza, the Africa Centre among them.
Following a vociferous campaign by the local community, Covent Garden was saved for posterity and today it is a popular tourist haunt. Thanks to the large quantity of social housing in the area, reflecting its working class roots, thousands of ordinary people still live there. However, they are finding themselves increasingly hemmed in by market forces that seek to turn this corner of the West End into a luxury retail destination along the lines of Bond Street, where big money is the only thing that counts.
The Africa Centre was one of the few institutions that continued to give the place a neighbourhood feel, and now that has gone, albeit voluntarily. It manages to sparkle once a year with the likes of Asa and Nneka, the headline act a couple of years back, reminding people of what it once was. But its departure from its iconic base has left a hole in more ways than one.