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The Boston Phoenix Blues and Baaba

Africa Fete '99

By Banning Eyre

AUGUST 16, 1999:  For five years, Africa Fête has brought top names in African pop to summer stages around the country. For many, the show has been a jolt of the exotic, but this year's line-up seems designed to highlight connections between African and American music. Headliner Baaba Maal of Senegal has been an Africa Fête regular, and as American audiences have got used to him, his music has become more and more international. But this year's newcomers are the real story. Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe brings his R&B tinged Afro-soul to these shores for the first time, and the kicker, a project called Kulanjan, finds bluesman Taj Mahal joining forces with traditional musicians from Mali and Guinea. When Africa Fête '99 plays the Hatch Shell this Sunday, audiences may discover that Africa is not as far away and unfamiliar as they'd thought.

Mtukudzi has been a star in Zimbabwe for more than 20 years. But whereas his rootsier peer Thomas Mapfumo has toured and released records in the US for much of that time, Tuku, as his fans call him, has been mostly overlooked abroad, perhaps because his music has such strong ties to South African township pop and American soul. "I'm still a fan of Otis Redding," he told me when I first met him in Zimbabwe a few years ago. "There's no other soul singer better than him until today. You can dance to rock music, but soul makes you sit down and think." Tuku has finally seen his first American record release, Tuku Music (Putumayo), a snappy, swinging blend of the styles he's explored in his long career. There are punchy takes on Zimbabwe roots; there's the triplet canter of Shona traditional music and the pump of township pop. But all the music here is colored by strains of gospel, jive, and soul.

Mtukudzi picks and strums an acoustic guitar, leaving the heavy musical lifting to his spare, taut band. His great attraction is his burly voice, which evokes Toots Hibbert's soul cry on chuggers like "Dzoka Uyame" and Otis's rugged whisper on softer tunes, like the melancholy "Tapindwa Nei," a lament about child abuse. Even without the occasional English lyric, you sense his engagement with social issues; his voice overflows with conviction but steers clear of sentimentality, like the best soul singers. On stage, Tuku is pure charisma, with stylish dance moves and a smile for the ages. Africa Fête audiences will likely wonder how such a seasoned, original artist could have escaped their notice.

Kulanjan's Africa Fête set will provide something never seen before -- Taj Mahal digging into the African roots of American blues and folk. Mahal's six African accomplices work under the direction of Toumani Diabate, perhaps the world's greatest player of the 21-string harp called the kora. The line-up features a number of exotic string instruments, plus the dulcet voice of Wassoulou diva Ramatou Diakite and the Salif Keita-like hurricane tenor of griot star Kasse Mady Diabate. But on the luminous album these musicians recorded -- Kulanjan (Hannibal) -- the group's great achievement is in bringing African folk styles home to America, or perhaps American folk music home to Africa. There's nothing at all awkward when Mahal lopes into "Catfish Blues" -- a nod to country blues legend Skip James -- and Toumani weaves his way in with flurries of chiming kora while Basekou Kouyate's deep-toned ngoni (a spike lute) melds effortlessly with Mahal's Dobro picking. On the romping "Ol' Georgie Buck," Mahal puts his guitar aside altogether and sings venerable blues over still-more-venerable African hunters' music.

Mahal says he grew up fully aware that he was learning "distinct American sounds developed from old African sounds." For him, the Kulanjan project fulfills a lifelong urge to "close the circle." Some argue that the African roots of the blues have been exaggerated. Before you weigh in on that argument, listen to and see Kulanjan. You may well feel differently afterward.

Africa Fête will close with its most proven crowd pleaser, one of the most beguiling performers in Africa, Baaba Maal. Maal has recently released evidence of his stage prowess, a CD and companion DVD, both entitled Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Palm Pictures). But there's no substitute for the direct experience of his stage dancing, band chemistry, and gift for connecting with and electrifying an audience.

This festival has always been about bridging the African and American continents. Maal has been delving into hip-hop for years. Last year, Mali's Salif Keita fielded an American rock band in his Africa Fête appearances. And Angelique Kidjo, featured in two previous Africa Fêtes, has unabashedly embraced contemporary R&B since her international debut in 1991. But this year's line-up goes deeper. By exploring Africa's past and present connections to classic soul, blues, and folk, Africa Fête '99 promises to deliver the festival's most meaningful concert experience to date.

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