Afrofest is Toronto's annual two day celebration of African music and culture. It's the biggest free African music festival in North America and has been running for over 20 years. Yesterday, Afrofest's organizers Music Africa accused City of Toronto officials in a Facebook post of restricting the festival in an “unfair and discriminatory” fashion.
The post alleges that the City has ordered Afrofest to cut its schedule from two day to one, citing that “permissible sound levels and permitted time frames were exceeded in previous festivals.” Peter Toh, president of Music Africa, denies this and points out that Woodbine Park—which has hosted the festival since it was bumped from its original, central location of Queens Park in 2011—is home to other busy events throughout the summer. “The sound company we employ does most of the events at Woodbine Park, including Canada Day and Beaches Jazz Festival concerts, and use the same sound equipment, crew and sound levels. The volume at Afrofest is no different than at those events but in our case they are being called violations.”
“Music Africa is always willing to work constructively with City of Toronto officials but it seems that while they wish us well, they in fact set conditions to jeopardize success," says. “This seems in complete contradiction to Toronto’s official “Music City” initiatives.”
I spoke with Toh last night about his ambivalent experiences with the City of Toronto and how Afrofest is the recipient of what he perceives as a double standard. At the end of the interview, he informed me that during our conversation he'd received an email from Toronto Mayor John Tory's office, which he described as “promising.”
Update 7:09 p.m. 3/16: Sign the Save Afrofest petition.
You’ve said that noise complaints don’t have merit because you use the same company that handles most of the events at Woodbine Park.
The question we are asking and what baffles me is: louder than who? At Afrofest 2015 we had bylaw officers at the festival saying that they had received noise complaint at about 11:30AM—before we began! So this is a matter of relativity. Who is saying it is loud? If somebody doesn’t like the music, it’s too loud. If someone loves it, it’s not loud. If they say it’s too loud and measure it to show it’s louder than it should be, then I’ll understand.
Is the music at Afrofest being marginalized?
I would prefer to say this: if you look at the history of African music, we used to communicate with drums. It doesn’t have to be extremely loud to carry. So you can be at the park and think, 'This isn’t loud enough' but someone will hear it elsewhere and think, 'This is really loud.' It’s just frequency at which it’s operating. Different pitches have different effects.
So the City hasn’t caught up to the specifics of the music at Afrofest showcases.
The City understands the kind of music Afrofest plays: it's the area residents. If five or six people are constantly complaining about our festival, it’s going to seem like so much irrespective of how many people love Afrofest.
So if the City understands Afrofest, but is forced to respond to the complaints of their constituents, what can be done so that Afrofest is allowed to flourish and that citizens are kept happy?
All the festivals at Woodbine Park should go by the same rules. It should be fair. If you’re saying that our festival should not go beyond a certain hour, but the next festival goes beyond that and nothing really happens...? [At another festival] I saw almost 20 vehicles on the turf and took pictures because I said to myself, 'If this happens at Afrofest, we lose our permit.' That’s a no-no for Afrofest.
What’s your immediate reaction to Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon’s quote in NOW Magazine?
There is a significant misunderstanding. There were no complaints in 2014. In 2015, Music Africa contacted the city in January and said: 'We’re going to have the Pan Am torch. Can we please have an extension?' In 2013 we just went ahead with the Nelson Mandela vigil [so in 2015 we made sure to ask]. In 2013, two weeks before the festival, we received a permit and were told we could not go beyond 10PM. Meanwhile we had already hired artists and made our schedule to go up to 10PM. So we decided: since this was coming in late and Nelson Mandela was in the hospital, instead of having a full-fledged performance we’re going to lead prayers for Nelson Mandela at 8PM. This was not a musical performance. Yes, we used amplified sound, but it was not loud.
Do you feel like the City is watching you closer than other festivals?
Yes. The scrutiny is higher.
You’re saying a white person in your position wouldn’t have gotten that treatment.
Maybe. One can believe that. And that’s almost the same way I feel about Afrofest. What we go through to put the festival together: do all other festivals go through the same thing? These violations they say are specific to us, is it really true? I have a letter from Parks & Recreation saying that each festival is dealt with separately. Which makes me wonder are we dealing with the same rules or different rules?
What impact will the city’s pending decision have on the festival?
It will have a very significant impact going forward. If we are not able to do a two day festival this year, we are going to lose a lot of our following. Our place in the African community is going to be jeopardized. The food vendors are a pillar of our festival. For someone to close their shop and set up a food tent, that’s a lot of work. Is it worth it to do that for one day?
Do you think Toronto see Afrofest as a part of its vision for a music city?
It depends. What is being done by Parks & Recreation and other elements of the City makes me wonder. Meanwhile, the reaction that we get from the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, Heritage Canada...these guys love what we do. So on the one hand we are supported, and on the other hand, not so much. I do not know how to answer all these questions. They baffle me. And even though I believe I have an answer, it’s one I don’t like. So I do not want to think that way.
Update: Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon has announced that Afrofest has been granted a two day permit. "All parties are committed to working together to ensure Afrofest is successful this summer and in future years,"the statement reads.
The change in the city's position is no doubt thanks to the public backlash against the one day permit restriction; the controversy reached the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, who included a restoration of the two day permit to the list of demands issued for their current stakeout of the Toronto Police Headquarters.