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Billed as ‘the UK’s largest free celebration of African music and culture’, the 40,000-capacity Africa Oyé Festival kicks off on Saturday, 22 June, in Liverpool’s Sefton Park with a lineup including Julian Marley, the Grammy Award-winning son of Bob, and Les Amazones d’Afrique.

Africa Oyé has enjoyed strong and consistent growth since it was first launched in 1992 as a series of small gigs in the city centre. At the core of the event is an ethos to redress negative perceptions of Africa by highlighting the continent’s impressive range of cultures, foods, music and artists.

Along with three stages hosting live music and DJs, free workshops and sports activities, Africa Oyé includes more than 90 trader’s stalls. The event is supported by Arts Council England, Liverpool City Council and The Granada Foundation,

Africa Oyé’s director Paul Duhaney (pictured) has worked on the event since 1999, and helped oversee its move to its Sefton Park home in 2002. Here he tells Access about the struggles involved in staging such a huge free-to-attend event at a time when costs have soared, and the hugely important role it plays in enabling all elements of the community to experience first-class talent and a broad cultural offering.

At a time when so many festivals have cancelled due to inflated costs, how are you managing to stage such a vast free-to-attend event?

The festival being free is a gift and a curse because it’s getting bigger every year but as it gets bigger you need more security, more toilets, and other costs such as the park cleanup rise. It cost £20,000 plus VAT to clean the park afterwards, which is a hefty cost, while traffic management is £15,000, and security £25,000. When I first started working with Africa Oyé in 1999, the cost of the festival was round £50,000, now Africa Oyé’s costs around £500,000 to produce.

We’re a registered charity, and the bulk of our funding comes from the Arts Council, and other supporters such as Liverpool City Council. We have to find the rest of the money ourselves. We do that through sponsorship, advertising, merchandise, donations, in-house fundraising – any way we can. Although costs go up every year, our funding doesn’t necessarily go up, so we have to find inventive ways to keep it free and to keep it going.

“We’ve always been known for our resilience, but even we are finding it very hard.”

So, we are appealing to the public this year to support us, or it’s going to be difficult for us to continue in Sefton Park. It’s not sustainable in its current guise, because we’re just not raising the funds that we need, particularly in the last two years, because production costs have gone up astronomically. You’ve seen festivals that have been around for a long time disappear. We’ve always been known for our resilience, but even we are finding it very hard the last couple years.

As an organisation we are punching well above our weight, for what we produce, for the money that we’re producing it with, the quality of the delivery of the event, and its reputation.

I couldn’t be prouder, but it is frustrating that we’ve been working so hard on the festival all these years, and we’re still yet to attract to a sponsor. We’re not looking for a lot of money, we are around £100,000 short every year so if we could find a way of bridging that gap, then we could continue producing this wonderful festival.

The event is so well established, there must be a lot of local support for it among people who have grown up with it?

A couple of years ago we had a family that included a baby, the mother, the grandmother and the great grandmother, at the event. You see a sense of ownership and engagement among the community around the festival.

There are loads of people who can’t afford to pay the ticket prices that are needed to go to a big festival, and we want to make sure that the artists we put on stage could stand up at any other festival. We have Grammy Award-winning artists on the stage, which is unprecedented for a free festival. It is about giving everybody access to that.

“If people saw my programming budget, they wouldn’t believe it compared to other festivals.”

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Do artists and agents reduce their fees in support of the event?

That’s definitely the case. I’m lucky enough to be invited to festivals and showcases all around the world. I’ve been doing that for 20 years now and built up great international recognition. The fact that we’re one of the only festivals in the UK that is exclusively programming African musicians, and we’ve got a really good reputation, helps. There is a lot of demand to play the festival, we get more than 200 applications a year. If people saw my programming budget, they wouldn’t believe it compared to other festivals.

Have there been any changes or enhancements to Africa Oyé this year?

We have put in a full traffic management plan this year which involves a few road closures, added taxi ranks and drop off points.

We have also slightly redesigned the site. We found that last year, because our DJ stages are becoming so popular they are attracting a bigger crowd and obviously the music has got louder as the stages have grown. So to address sound leaks I redesign the site, which has involved moving the DJ stages so they’re not facing the main stage. We’ve got more traders, and we’ll have new bar areas too, so the site is going to be a little wider. People still bring their own drinks, and that’s another thing we need to look at moving forward in order to keep the festival free – taking a little bit more control of the alcohol.

When it comes to suppliers, how difficult is it to strike a deal when you are dealing with such significant budgetary challenges?

Our main suppliers have worked with us for years, and a lot of them have given us prices that wouldn’t be available to others because they want to support the festival, they love the whole ethos of it, and they love working on it. They should be commended for the work they do and the support they give us, and that goes for the staff as well. I’m the only full-time member staff, I have a part time member of staff and then beyond that it is freelancers. There’s just so many people who we have been working with for so many years who are key components in making the festival come together. Without them, it wouldn’t be possible.

Africa Oyé Festival’s key suppliers: 

Stages: UK events

Event management: Ariel Events & Event Design Company

Marketing: One Fell Swoop

Backline: STS

Accountants: Harvey Guinan

Graphic design: Plast-c

BSL: Bobs