This weekend, something amazing happened in Sheffield.

For one weekend, Crucible Theatre and Tudor Square became a pulsating heart of culture, art, poetry and performance from the African continent and the African diaspora.

A collaboration between Utopia Theatre and Sheffield Theatres, Spirit of Africa Festival brought an extensive programme of activities ranging from African drumming workshops to guided walks focused on African history in Sheffield.

On Friday evening, legendary wordsmith, historian and political activist Akala took to the Crucible stage as the headliner. The performance was a powerful, cinematic showcase of his 2016 comic-book EP Visions, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name.

As always, Akala was stirringly eloquent. While he captivated the audience with lyrical storytelling that was both disturbing and stunning, a screen on-stage displayed vibrant illustrations from the graphic novel, making the experience a sensory banquet.

After the music Akala gave one of his acclaimed lectures on the history of Africa. The lecture managed to be intelligent, critical and funny all at the same time. Akala spoke with a certainty and openness that made it impossible not to be hooked on every word.

Saturday evening saw even more fantastic artists grace the Crucible stage. Aar Maanta, a Somali-British singer-songwriter, performed a set blending traditional Somali lyrics and song writing with an eclectic mix of instrumental influences. Aar Maanta sang about personal loss, hope and the refugee crisis, explaining each song to the audience which made the show feel intimate and personal.

Headliners Dele Sossimi Afrobeat Orchestra brought the Saturday night alive. The air filled with electricity and noise as the Afrobeat pioneer and band exploded in a flood of percussion and bass. It is hard to describe the sound, other than to say it has lashings of funk, groove and musical presence. Accompanying the music was an incredible dancer, who persuaded several members of the audience to come on stage and dance for the last tune.

The joy of Spirit of Africa festival was not just about the events, although they were fantastic. What was special was that it created a space for an open celebration of African culture and heritage in Sheffield. It was a festival about performing and learning, in a shared environment of appreciation.

Tchiyiwe Chihana, a festival co-organiser, said “as a girl of Black-African heritage, and somebody who comes to the theatre quite a bit, I think it’s very humbling that for the first time I’m seeing an African representation, a black representation, of culture on stage and appreciation of it with media coverage that’s not telling me it’s negative to be African.”

Photography by Nina Thomas, Peach and Teal Photography.

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