Sandwiched between last month's Gay Pride and next week's Caribana, Afrofest is the overlooked middle child of Toronto's summer festivals. But if you've never experienced the event before rest assured it'll be worth the trek to Queen's Park this weekend, even if you'll have to brave Toronto's garbage-clogged streets to get there.
Toronto's African population is not large (it's too small to break out of the "all others" category in the city's demographic statistics) but the fact that this is Afrofest's 21st consecutive year is a testament to its enduring presence. This year's festival will feature practically non-stop musical performances on three stages, a bustling marketplace of people selling everything from clothes to books to crafts, and food representing virtually all regions of Africa. If you're looking for something less strenuous/potentially embarrassing than participating in an African dance workshop don't worry: there's a beer tent.
Festivities open tonight with a performance by Vieux Farka Touré at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Vieux is the younger of the legendary Touré's, Mali's father-son virtuoso guitar duo. Vieux is picking up where his father Ali Farka Touré left off after his death in 2003, and has now released two successful blues-tinged records of his own. The music continues with dj's and bands on Saturday and Sunday in Queen's Park. Throw in a couple of internationally renowned artists like Oumour Sangaré (a.k.a. "The Songbird of Wassolou") and Madagascar Slim, and you've got yourself a party.
Many of the musicians performing at Afrofest are Africans now living in Toronto, and their back stories make you wonder if the Algerian in the apartment across the hall might be a rock star back home. Take Kemer Yousef. He was born in an Ethiopian village to a mother who was a singer, but when political violence threatened his hometown in 1989 he fled on foot with 200 others to Somalia. Facing deadly snakes and deadlier bandits, only 37 survived the journey. Yousef made it to Toronto, where he cobbled together a band from TTC buskers and began recording albums that were distributed in Ethiopia. Reportedly, it's now impossible to turn on a radio in Ethiopia without hearing his songs. Most Torontonians have never heard of him, but in February of this year, he played a homecoming show in Addis Ababa to a crowd of 20,000 people. He hadn't been home in 24 years.
Afrofest spokesman Alistair Wentworth is quick to point out that this weekend isn't just for Torontonians of African extraction. "Our audience survey at last year's Afrofest showed that one in two persons were non-African," he said.
And while Wentworth admits that many Torontonians may be ignorant about Africa (Zanzibar ain't just a strip club on Yonge), he insists that Afrofest isn't about dispelling any misconceptions about the continent. "I think of Afrofest primarily as a terrifically fun weekend," he said, "That it helps get across the immense diversity of African culture is just a huge bonus."
Afrofest continues today from 1 pm - 10 pm Sunday at Queen's Park. Admission is free.