It’s a weekend to share and celebrate international friendships — and party down.
Welcome to the second annual Afro Latin Fest YEG happening this Friday and Saturday.
Nearly 20 different acts of music, dance and poetry will cue the activities with a wide range of sonic styles, but there’s also gaming, networking, a market, and a chance to meet up with members of Edmonton’s Afro-Latin community as three venues offer entertainment over two evenings.
It all starts Friday when Metro Cinema at the Garneau Theatre presents the acclaimed feature documentary film They Are We by director Emma Christopher. The story traces the roots of an Afro-Cuban group back through the slave trade to their ancestral village in Sierra Leone, Africa.
Then the festival really starts cooking.
Song and dance
The festival’s many song and dance acts originate from all over Africa and the Caribbean, but you might classify them into several key categories.
First there are acts like Agbe (translation: Life), a more tradition-based music-dance ensemble coming directly from the city of Accra, Ghana. While they can’t bring the 55 members who make up the full group you’ll still get a slice of a cultural legacy that dates back centuries.
Then there are acts like Young Paris, born of Congolese parents in Paris and raised in New York City, who blends traditional African rhythms with contemporary pop elements from Afrobeat to hip-hop and electronic dance music. In a parallel fashion, Benjamin BK has transplanted his roots from Cameroon to the Netherlands, where he started singing and rapping in Dutch, French and English to Afro-pop grooves.
Add local immigrants of Afro-Latin origin who have imported their own ancestral traditions and brought new life to those cultural artifacts, groups like the veteran Edmonton percussion group Trincan Steel Orchestra, founded here in 1982, modelled after the original steel can orchestras of Trinidad and Tobago. You could frame Havana-born Cuban choreographer Leo Gonzalez (based here since 2013) and his group Cuban Movement is a similar way.
Finally, there are those African and Latin Canadians living here in Edmonton who have chosen to explore their ancestral roots and the unique DNA that makes them part of African culture — groups like MelAfrique, together now for several years, or individuals like the spoken word poet Celine, who spends most days as a student of political science at the University of Alberta.
Regardless of their place of origin, international influences mean that many of these artists have embraced their own particular creative identity, which might include shades of global pop, rhythm and blues, hip-hop and rap.
A few of the musical acts have their origins in student associations that go back several years now, informal friendships of visiting students from all over Africa and Latin America. It starts with social organizations like La Connexion Afro Latina that became a spiritual lifeline to new Canadian students like Ivan Touko.
Born in Cameroon, Touko will soon graduate from environmental studies at the University of Alberta, while he has been working part time for the FJA (Francophone Youth Association of Alberta). But outside those pursuits, his real passion comes in sharing African culture here in Edmonton.
Touko and a couple of friends put together the first Afro Latin Fest YEG this time last year and surprised themselves when an audience of over 500 showed up to party at the Starlite Room. This year the festivities are spread over two days and two venues, with an opening film screening for extra educational value.
“Basically our goal is to try and bridge the gap between the African, Caribbean and Latin communities and Greater Edmonton itself,” he explains. “As a member of the African community here for seven years now I know there are a lot of great things happening, but the community wasn’t communicating enough with the rest of the city.”
They wanted to pull together a greater range of arts and business interests in the city. After putting on a few smaller events through student associations at the University of Alberta, Afro Latin Festival YEG is their attempt to find a wider audience.
One notable example of Edmonton’s developing African music scene is the sextet MelAfrique.
Again, this is a group that came together from students meeting students, and their collective backgrounds and musical influences are reflected in the band’s pan-urban Afro-Caribbean flavours.
Founder and electric bassist Leshan Masikonte was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and came here to attend college in 2015, first in business at the University of Alberta, now at NAIT. The group’s two female co-lead vocalists Riwo Egor and Adanna Onuekwusi are also from Kenya, singing a mix of Swahili, English and other Nigerian dialects. The last co-founder and keyboard player Aristotle Jorge Canga came here from Angola. Enoch Attey plays guitar; drummer Steven Atkins is Jamaican.
The original lineup came together in 2016, though they have had a few personnel changes since.
“It’s less traditional African music so we like to call it Afro-fusion,” explains Masikonte, “because everyone brings their own small influences into the ensemble.”
That’s includes everything from the Congo’s sebene style to Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat sound, to western pop influences like Michael Jackson and Prince. But in the end they try to make performances at least 75 per cent original tunes.
Masikonte says the group is busy working on a few new singles and their first record release, but several music videos on YouTube show their smooth dance grooves, reflecting elements of Afro-pop, jazz, rhythm and blues, and shades of urban soul at the same time. Just getting warmed up, they have been featured performers at various public events and venues.
As you might expect, MelAfrique songs like Enough and Not Alone take on the experience of new transplanted immigrants trying to make their way in a new land.
“In the beginning there were some rough times but we’re trying to let other Africans coming here know that they are not alone.”
As festival co-producer, Touko is the main figure booking music and dance. He’s been checking out all sorts of Afro-Latin acts here in Edmonton in recent years and trying to make further connections across Canada. On top of that, he’s made friends with artists like Netherlands-based Benjamin BK through social media.
“I follow the music a lot, I’ve seen a lot of these acts live, and you’re going to find that they put on an amazing show.”
Along with Canadian-born artists there are musicians and dancers from many different nations scheduled, mostly from West Africa and the Caribbean.
Know that the fledgling festival is still looking for more volunteer help. You can contact Ivan Touko through the website.
For full details visit www.afrolatinfestyeg.com.
Afro Latin Fest YEG
Featuring: Young Paris, AGBE, Juic3Boy, Benjamin BK, David Jay, SocaFit, Christian De La Luna, and others
When/Where: Screening of They Are We, 6:30 p.m. Friday, Metro Cinema, Garneau Theatre (8712 109 St.) Tickets at the venue only. Kickoff Party 8:30 p.m. Friday, at Station On Jasper (10524 Jasper Ave.). Main Event 6 p.m. Saturday, at the Starlite Room (10030 102 St.).
Tickets: Separate tickets $10 Friday; $35 both nights or Saturday only, from the festival site or at the venues. A ticket to Friday’s Metro film screening also gets you into that night’s Kickoff Party. For full details see the website www.afrolatinfestyeg.com.
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