Arts & Entertainment

Festival brings the soul to Sydney

Thandiwe Phoenix, photo: Chris Peken

The obvious place to host a celebration of soul food and culture might be the Deep South, the heartland of American blues, jazz, and creole cooking. But the world’s first ever neo-soul festival will take place even further south than New Orleans; it will happen in the Southern Hemisphere, right here in Sydney.
Some of the biggest names of the neo-soul pantheon will head to Sydney this weekend for Soulfest at Victoria Park. The festival program promises a healthy dose of sweet music – from Angie Stone’s gospel-infused soul, to the silky smooth strains of Maxwell and D’Angelo, to the hip-hop philosophy of Brooklyn’s own Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def.

Soulfest promoter John Denison says, “We are bringing together the ultimate bucket list of neo-soul and conscious hip-hop artists for a stand-alone showcase of the genre – it will be a solid nine-hour neo-soul schooling, from A to Z.”

He continues, “Neo-soul has been around for 15 or 20 years now; and yet many of the artists who really define the neo-soul sound, like Maxwell and D’Angelo, have never toured Australia.”

Soul icons Maxwell and D’Angelo will be joined at Soulfest by Aloe Blacc, Angie Stone, Anthony Hamilton, Leela James, Musiq Soulchild, and hip-hop legends Common and Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def. The all-star line-up is reinforced with an impressive selection of local talents, including Ngaiire (pronounced Ny-rie), Milan Ring and Thandiwe (pronounced Tan-dee-way) Phoenix.

Creative cross-pollination is a hallmark of the neo-soul movement. Many of the artists featured at Soulfest have collaborated on recording projects in the past but this will be the first time that so many members of the extended neo-soul family have been assembled in one place.

Denison says, “Having such an incredible line-up of neo-soul, jazz and hip-hop legends on one stage is not just an Australian first; it’s a world first. Even the artists are amazed that we have made this happen.”

Sydney-based soulstress Thandiwe Phoenix says, “I was in South Africa when I got the call inviting me to be part of this. It didn’t seem real – it still seems unbelievable that I am going to be performing with so many of the musicians I have listened to and admired for so long.”

She explains, “In Australia, this kind of music is not the predominant genre, it’s not commercial – so, as a musician, the neo-soul path is a difficult route to go down. But there is a demand here for soulful music – and with artists like Hiatus Kaiyote gaining international recognition, people are starting to understand that Australia is about more than just indie rock.”

Inspired by the success of recent tours by Jill Scott, John Legend and Erykah Badu, Denison claims that the Australian fan base for neo-soul, though decidedly niche, is discerning and dedicated. He estimates that Australia is home to around 100,000 fans of the genre and expects to see 40,000 of those fans at the Soulfest gigs in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland.

Denison says, “A lot of music festivals try to please everyone – they try to squeeze a bit of everything into their line-ups, from EDM to hip-hop to rock. Our concept and genre-specific line-up will not draw a typical festival audience. Soulfest is all about the music, the culture, and the calibre of the musicians – we are expecting a chilled crowd, real music lovers.”

Alongside the musical feast served up at Soulfest, patrons can also satisfy their appetites for authentic soul food at Eat Street, the central food hub. Hungry punters can enjoy a diverse smorgasbord of American, Mexican, Cuban, and Brazilian fare.

Denison says, “There is more to neo-soul than music, there is a whole culture behind the music, and food is an important element of the culture.

“We are bringing in some of the city’s best food trucks and award-winning chefs. There will be a chilli cook-off, too, for a bit of fun. It will be a laidback vibe on Eat Street. You can sample some chilli and tuck into some Southern-style soul food while the DJs spin old-school 45s.”

In a deliberate move away from the organised chaos of huge music festivals, where overlapping performances are scheduled across several stages, Soulfest will simply feature one stage for the headlining artists and a second stage for local artists – performances will alternate between the two stages.

Denison says, “Local artist participation is really important. There is so much local talent in Australia – not just artists who promote the neo-soul genre, but artists who have influenced others. Ngaiire is a great example. She has really set a standard for the Australian music scene – she is doing her own thing.”

While the seminal albums of the neo-soul movement were recorded in the late ‘90s and early noughties, the evolution of the genre is far from finished. The neo-soul movement has inspired a generation of Australian musicians. Future-soul frontrunners like Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote and Ngaiire have put their own unique spin on the neo-soul sound, making waves not only at home but also on the international stage. (CC)

Oct 18, Victoria Park, Broadway, $139-179,

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