Sound Culture Fest’s Afro-Caribbean Rhythm Mission: ‘This Goes Deep Into Roots’


‘You can’t go to any Caribbean club and not hear African music.’

On September 5, D’banj, the Nigerian superstar best known for his irresistible dance hit “Oliver Twist,” will co-headline the inaugural Sound Culture Fest at Irving Plaza with GOAT-status Trinidadian soca artist Machel Montano. D’banj’s energetic and highly danceable new Afropop is part of a family of club-friendly mainstream African music often packaged for export as Afrobeats. Soca is the calypso-rooted sound that fuels Trinidad’s Carnival fêtes, and Montano has built a career over the course of three decades on being the life of those parties. Rounding out the evening’s entertainment is OgaSilachi, a New York-based Nigerian-American singer who dubs his music “AfronB,” and Eddie Kadi, a British comedian originally from Congo who is flying out to act as master of ceremonies. Planned to coincide with Labor Day and New York’s Carnival weekend, this show is definitely going to be a festive affair.

It might seem like a gamble to bring two major artists from distinctly different music cultures together in New York City, but if it is, it’s an astutely calculated one — maybe just a minute ahead of its time. Sound Culture is the product of a cultural convergence that is well underway. “It’s got to do with how African music is going right now and how Caribbean music is going right now,” concert organizer and all-around African pop music maven Rickie Davies says of the vision for Sound Culture Fest. “You can’t go to any Caribbean club or Carnival without hearing African music. And at African clubs, you definitely hear Caribbean music.”

Songs like Ghanaian-British artist Fuse ODG’s azonto earworm “Antenna” have become major party hits across the Caribbean in recent years, leading Caribbean artists to seek out collaborations with their African counterparts. Timaya has turned out remixes of his song “Bum Bum” featuring Machel Montano and Sean Paul, recasting it as soca and dancehall, respectively, as well as a version of his hit “Sanko” featuring soca artist Destra Garcia. Montano has also performed with Timaya in Trinidad and featured on Nigerian singer 2Face Idibia’s “Go,” the video for which was shot in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Montano finds both great opportunity and profound meaning in this cultural exchange. “Now we see the modern side of Africa, and we see it’s so similar to what we are doing. I have invited them to my shows in Trinidad, and when they come they love the similarity of what we’re doing,” he says. The similarities he’s referring to stem from the African roots of so much Caribbean culture, but also from the direct influence the Caribbean has had on African pop culture. West Africans today grew up on reggae alongside Afrobeat, and some of the continent’s biggest stars are dancehall artists like Shatta Wale from Ghana and Nigeria’s Patoranking.

Davies has been a connector for Montano’s African collaborations. She too talks about the intrinsic value of promoting Caribbean-African crossovers and the great strategic possibilities they offer. “There are so many similarities between the cultures,” she explains. “I’m from Ghana and there’s so many things that we eat that I’ve discovered Jamaicans eat. When I was growing up in the U.K., Jamaicans didn’t necessarily like Africans because they were basically taught [that] Africans sold them out. So, this goes deep into roots. This is very important for us, bringing both cultures together. And I also thought it would help the African music industry cross over, because the Caribbean artists have been able to do it.”

Perhaps the most compelling rationale behind the booking is that it’s a fantastic bill with headliners who really are, in many ways, two of a kind. Davies’ Nairobi-born partner Winnie Kigara gushes that D’banj “has an amazing aura about him. Machel is the same. You can watch him one thousand times and it still feels good.” It’s hard to imagine that their pairing will result in anything other than serious, combustive, waist-wining chemistry, especially since it’s guaranteed the two giants will do some kind of performance together before the night is over.

Sound Culture Fest has its origins with another brilliant match. Davies and Kigara met while they were both working with international artists nominated for BET Awards and quickly joined forces. As a publicist, Davies has been an influential booster of new African sounds in the U.K., making it possible for artists like Nigerian rapper Ice Prince to connect with British audiences. Kigara’s great love and professional focus as an artist manager has always been Jamaican music, which she calls “my heart, my everything.” Bringing African and Caribbean artists together for events and collaborations as a team became a passion for both, and they’ve been having a fabulous time doing it. Recounting Timaya’s trip to perform in Barbados, Kigara casually drops in that the Caribbean’s most famous pop star got down with the rhythm as well. “Rihanna was there. She enjoyed it.”

A precursor to this fest was their well-received Sounds From Africa/Sounds From the Caribbean showcase earlier this year at South by Southwest. Montano performed on a stage outside the Palm Door event space alongside Jamaican reggae singer Gyptian and other performers of the same sonic ilk. Inside, D’banj and some of the other biggest names in African pop — including Nigeria’s Wizkid and Ice Prince — did it up like it was the holiday season in Lagos.

Now the pair hopes to build on their success in Austin by trying the concept out in New York. The two organizers are betting that multicultural lineups like this one can bring New York’s large African and Caribbean communities together and then some. “We don’t want to target just Africans or Trinidadians. Our target is anyone who loves the music — people who heard ‘Oliver Twist’ and loved it. I know a lot of people from the Caribbean who got to know ‘Oliver Twist,’ but not all of them got to know it was D’banj behind it. So this is an opportunity to introduce fans of both artists to each other,” Kigara explains.

Once everyone’s been properly introduced, Kigara and Davies plan to scale up rapidly with bigger Sound Culture events in New York, London, Africa, and the Caribbean. “We don’t want it to be just a one-off thing, but a movement,” says Kigara. Part of this involves bringing together a diversity of musical styles. Under the Afrobeats umbrella are genres such as hiplife, Naija pop, and juju. Likewise, Sound Culture might showcase Caribbean styles as diverse as dancehall, roots reggae, soca, and reggaeton. Kigara envisions a dream lineup that puts Daddy Yankee on the same stage as D’banj, Montano, Sean Paul, and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.

Labor Day weekend will see the first stage of this vision realized, and Montano, for his part, is more than ready to travel the road ahead. “This is the frontline of the battleground to put these two cultures together, to put Caribbean and African people together and let them understand: One is where we came from, one is where we went to, and bringing them together is where we’re going.”

Sound Culture Fest takes over Irving Plaza on September 5. For ticket information, click here.