Finding frequencies to connect Africans
Music festivals worldwide have become crucial spaces for artistic communities to gather and connect with other African musicians of the diaspora
March is a big month for music Down Under with a variety of festivals bringing amazing artists from across the globe to Australasia.
South African-based Ghanaian musician Jojo Abot is enjoying a string of appearances at Perth Festival, Brunswick Music Festival, WOMADelaide and WOMAD New Zealand.
In Melbourne, Abot was fired up by a dinner party connecting her with African-Australian poets, artists and musicians, illustrating the strong socio-political connection between the two countries.
"There are young people who live in these spaces who are black, displaced and feeling disconnected from the continent," she says.
"Having everyone in the same space that night was about reaffirming each other and letting each other know that their presence is felt. Minorities can come together to form a majority. This can be a source of support for one another.
"The issues of inequality and hatred are universal. We need more spaces of community and love where humans flourish and nourish together."
This need for creative connections, and community and spiritual awakening through self-expression is being met by large music festivals worldwide that have become crucial spaces for artistic communities to gather and connect with other African musicians of the diaspora.
The WOMAD concept (World of Music and Dance) is the foremost world music festival brand. Founded by musician Peter Gabriel in 1980, it has become a pioneer of cultural exchange worldwide and plays an important role in the south-south exchanges between SA and Australasia.
SA hosted a WOMAD festival in Benoni from 2000-2002. There are plans to bring the festival back to SA, with negotiations for Nelspruit to host it at an advanced stage.
WOMADelaide has always been a stage for the south-south exchanges, with the South African band, African Gypsies Project, performing in the Australian city in 2003.
Recording collaborations between Australia and SA — featuring Tumi collaborating with the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra and Wouter Kellerman and Soweto Gospel Choir — are adding to these exchanges, but Australian music manager Jess White says it is early days.
White worked for the Australasian Worldwide Music Expo in Melbourne, the Southern Hemisphere’s premier music industry conference and showcase. He relocated to Maputo and later Johannesburg, and founded the Akum music management agency in 2013.
The Igoda Southern African music festival circuit links some of the best festivals in Africa to create platforms for cultural exchange and international exposure. White has played a key role through the Mozambican leg of the circuit, Azgo, and has leveraged Australasian tours for Bongeziwe Mabandla (SA), Kiltir and Maya Kamaty (Reunion Island) and Abot.
"Australia is still very much focused on pop, rock and folk music. Without strong community radio stations such as 3RRR and PBS in Melbourne, RTRFM in Perth, 4ZZZ in Brisbane and FBI in Sydney, and a strong festival scene, these artists would not get a chance to grace these stages," he says.
"Due to the strong support Australian festivals receive from their city governments, festival directors have the opportunity to programme outside of mainstream media and give a platform to more diverse and exciting line-ups."
WOMADelaide is a big festival that has built its reputation as an open-minded platform for cross-cultural artists and a launching pad for international careers. Abot’s performance at the 26th edition was on the same bill as new-generation artists Hana and Jessie-Lee’s Bad Habits, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington and Baker Boy.
She was able to link with African-Australian artists Sampa the Great, Remi and N’Fa Jones and collaborated with two sisters from the Kaurna nation, the traditional custodians of Adelaide.
"I appreciate the expansion of these spaces and the growing open-mindedness in them. We experience life in a multimedia and multisensory form, so why shouldn’t our creative spaces be like that?" she asks.
Abot grew up in the US. From an early age, she realised she would never fit into the mainstream as a singer-songwriter and would have to carve her own niche. A Ghanaian artist based in the US, Sam Adoquei, introduced her to indigenous Ghanaian philosophers and deep conversations regarding harmony, nature and God.
"Ghana is the core of my experience and offers an entry point to connect with others. Feeling I have access to all of the universe and feeling as though I can share my culture, my experience and perspective with the universe is that inheritance," she says.
Abot travels the world like a migrating swallow and has lived in Copenhagen, New York and now Johannesburg. Her career has taken her beyond the creative to all aspects of the music business. "To learn to fall on your face and get back on your feet, to learn from the mistakes of others, to talk to mentors and to figure out what it is like to build from the ground up; that is how it has been for me," she says.
Abot’s career has taken off since settling in Africa. Her New York trip-hop influence of whispered vocals over lazy beats began to give way to the psychedelic Afro-punk flavour of the moment in Johannesburg, "where music and fashion are intrinsically linked to culture, identity and creative expression", as White puts it.
Abot calls her musical style "Afro-hypno-sonic". It includes music, dance, literature, film and photography. It references the culture and language of her people and rhythms from reggae to Afrobeat and the new sound of the youth — Gqom.
Her performances are marked by bright costumes and painted faces, choreographed dance moves, electronic beats meeting live instrumentation and backing visuals.
"You find in genres like Gqom or Abadja, which is from Ghana – there are so many similarities – there is a spiritual tonality and a rhythm that once you get to move your feet, you go into a trance," she says.
"Our generation has turned to other forms of spiritual connection, expression and exploration. The purpose of music is to offer a space of expression and healing and echo the very frequencies of the universe, our ancestry and our spirits."
Abot and White are preparing to produce a show in SA in late April or early May.