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04 juillet 2005

African music in a Cornish garden

By Alan Beattie in London, Henry Tricks in Cornwall and John Reed in Johannesburg

The world's attention this weekend fell on a assembly of giants from the rich world promising to help Africa. Not the Group of Eight meeting itself, but mammoth rock concerts in London, Philadelphia, Berlin and other G8 cities, where some of the world's most famous musicians performed for a global television audience in the hundreds of millions. But mirroring the unglamorous, low-profile efforts of African nations to pull themselves out of poverty were the struggles of the continent's musicians to showcase their talent as well.

Compared with the fundraising of Live Aid, 20 years ago, the 10-hour Live 8 concert in London's Hyde Park had a more explicitly political edge, even if the complexities of foreign aid, debt relief and trade policy are harder to convey than the simple injunction of 1985 to “feed the world”. “We don't want your money we want your name”, an electronic message scrolled over the top of the stage, along with the warnings to “eight men in one room” not to let campaigners down.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft multi-billionaire and philanthropist, and Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary-general, came on to bring some heavyweight, if faintly incongruous, backing to the campaign. Bob Geldof, the organiser, indulged himself by performing a single Boomtown Rats song but spent more time railing against cynicism and defeatism towards aid and Africa.

The shows in G8 capitals were about raising consciousness about Africa, not about showcasing the music of the continent. Perhaps this explains why the only concert in Africa itself a hastily arranged event in Johannesburg drew around 7,000 fans compared with the 40,000 expected, and explains the relegation of the cream of the African music scene to a former quarry pit in Cornwall.

But even the whiff of discrimination failed to damp spirits at the Eden Project, the Cornish gardens complex and symbol of environmental transformation. There, 20 acts, including some of the greatest African musicians alive, swelled their voices into a dazzling gesture of defiance as if the eyes of the world, not just of 5,000 people, were turned on them.

The veteran British rock star Peter Gabriel organised the concert with the Senegalese legend Youssou N'Dour after failing to convince the man he called “Chairman Bob” to put more African acts on the Hyde Park stage apart from a brief appearance by N'Dour to duet with the singer Dido and an African children's choir to accompany the American diva Mariah Carey.

“It's about Africa, and if you're not empowering the African music community, what are you doing?” Mr Gabriel said.

Assembled in just two weeks, the Africa Calling concert was a pygmy compared with the Hyde Park extravaganza. The mood was part celebration, part justification. African musicians struggled to explain why a worldwide event designed to offer opportunities to Africa failed to give some of the greatest African entrepreneurs a chance to sell themselves.

But they made some telling points about Africa's responsibility to itself.

“How long is Africa going to depend on aid?” asked Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier from Sudan now making hot-selling rap records in Kenya. “Aid is needed, but will the world continue to supply food to Africa or can it provide food for itself?”

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