The cartoonish simplicity, and jabs for cheap political points would be laughable, were the narrative not so pervasive.
For Peres Zapfack, co-founder of the Sounds of Africa Festival [SOA], the antidote is simple, and he’s not afraid to bet large on our curiosity, desire to understand, and abundant capacity for kindness.
“Events like SOA, are here to make it easy for everyone to discover each other’s ways of life. To promote an efficient transfer of culture that can help us live better together in our diversity. Understanding and recognising each other’s ways of life is key to this process. Cultural festivals are an efficient way to achieve this, and that is what SOA is all about.
“Unfortunately, there has been negative media coverage of the African community recently, fuelled by what seems to be a political agenda,” says Zapfack. “This increasingly bad representation from the mainstream media is dangerous. It is wrong. It must change.”
When Zapfack first came to Melbourne back in 2011 from Cameroon, a nation wedged between Central and West Africa, he couldn’t help but notice a stark disconnect.
“I was surprised by the limited representation of African culture here,” says Zapfack. “It was very hard to listen to African music outside of my bedroom. I couldn’t find many restaurants or shops selling African food products. Even to drink an African beer was a struggle. I remember telling myself, ‘oh my god, this city is missing out on something really unique and amazing, we need to do something about this’.”
Things started small – the first effort being a fortnightly Afrobeat session in 2015. But it managed to tap into some early enthusiasm, a sign to Zapfack and company that they were on the right track.
“From the start, the vision has always been to increase the representation of African culture in Melbourne and Australia,” says Zapfack. “So, we quickly realised that the nights were limited because we could only reach a specific audience. We also realised by going to many other cultural events [other festivals especially] that Melbourne is so cosmopolitan and people here are really eager to discover other cultures. At that point, we realised organising the SOA Festival was the next step.
And though the event has grown largely from these early nightclub days, the passion hasn’t waned, with Zapfack still taking delight in organising the event. A particularly gratifying challenge has been capturing the sheer breadth and diversity of African culture in one day.
“It tests us to create experiences that are as inclusive as possible. People love it,” he says. “It’s really fun to see people enjoying West African music while eating injera from East Africa, for example. And that’s our way of bringing African Culture as a whole to Melbourne.”
And though he can’t declare any favourites, there are things Zapfack says you’d be a fool to skip. “I wouldn’t miss the drumming and storytelling workshops. The drumming workshop is so much fun and interactive while the storytelling really transports you to an African village. It is done by a traditional storyteller from South Africa this year. It’s educational and relaxing at the same time. In terms of music, I wouldn’t leave the festival without listening to Ausecuma Beats.”
In the end, Zapfack is on a mission to help us discover the African way of living. For him, it’s the event’s most important aspect.
“Seeing people smile when they listen and dance to new African rhythms, when they taste delicious African food, feel or try some African clothing, when they touch handmade African sculptures and participate in traditional workshops.”
As for what to bring, Zapfack keeps the instruction light. “I would say an open mind, good vibes and your dancing shoes.”