Festival showcases Africa in all its diversity

Boston Globe, May 23, 2010

With the World Cup kicking off in three weeks in Johannesburg, the eyes of the world are about to be trained on Africa.

But how many people know that 2010 marks 50 years of independence for more than half the nations on the continent? And how aware are we of its rich social and cultural diversity, and the wrenching crises it still faces?

Those questions were much on the mind of Boston activist Mireille Tushiminina, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who helps run a nonprofit, the Shalupe Foundation, that channels support to victims of civil war in eastern Congo, especially orphans and victims of rape.

They led Tushiminina and colleagues to expand a planned celebration of Congo’s independence into a showcase for the whole continent. Gathering musicians, vendors, and small-business sponsors from across the Boston area African community, the city’s first-ever African festival is set for July 17 on City Hall Plaza.

Headlining are two international attractions, singer Teeyah from the Ivory Coast and Congolese singer and bandleader Bouro Mpela, a specialist in the pulsating, ultra-danceable soukous style who previously sang in superstar Koffi Olomide’s band.

Other confirmed acts include local stalwarts who represent different perspectives, styles, and regions of Africa in the Boston area’s small clubs, immigrant social functions, African dance classes, poetry events, and more. Among them are singer and spoken-word artist U-Meleni, from Zimbabwe; the Mediterranean fusion band Atlas Soul, with members from France and North Africa; and a strong Senegalese delegation with drummer Mamadou Diop, Afro-pop band Lamine Toure & Group Saloum; and dance master Fatou N’diaye-Davis and her company.

For Tushiminina, programming this event – a grassroots endeavor that has required clearing numerous practical and financial obstacles – produced revelations about the scope and creativity of the region’s African community, which she estimates at 80,000 people.

“I was shocked to find that there were so many African artists here,” she says. Names circulated by word of mouth, and the organizers had to make tough choices for the final program. “We want to demonstrate the differences in culture, music, artistic point of view. It all goes back to showing that Africa is a continent, not just one country.”

But the showcase is meant to empower and educate Boston’s Africans as well, who are scattered across the region and often preoccupied with the daily struggles of immigrant life.

“We need to show this diversity not only to Boston but to each other,” says U-Meleni. “We live in different pockets, and we are not always aware of each other.” Bandleader Toure comments that programs with multiple African bands from multiple countries are uncommon. “We don’t know each other,” he says.

That is about to change, says Tushiminina, who hopes the festival will grow into an annual event. “We all experienced colonization and had the same struggles to achieve independence,” she says. “Why not join forces?”

Fittingly, Teeyah and Mpela, the international artists who top the bill, are among the class of young stars who are little-known on the Western world-music circuit, but extremely popular across much of the continent.

“It’s a chance for me to make myself known,” says Mpela, who divides his time between Kinshasa, Paris, and New York. He says he is bringing a full band with him, and he takes his headlining role seriously: “It’s extremely important to confront and share our different cultures with one another. My role here will be to unite everyone.”