Saturday night's Third World Unity Festival at the D.C. Armory was a musical celebration that was both long and fruitful. Despite lengthy stretches between bands, this festival came off in grand style, offering a lot of exhilarating music.
Opening the show was Tabou Combo, one of Haiti's most popular groups, making its first area appearance. The group's music is a heady blend of reggae, calypso, salsa and funk that's known as compas, or "mini-jazz." With layered, speedy, syncopated melodies punctuated by lively vocals, this may be the fastest of the Caribbean sounds.
Next up was Singing Sondra, a full-throated vocalist who offered several pleasant, loping numbers before the much-heralded arrival of the Mighty Sparrow, the West Indian calypso star who's billed as "the Calypso King of the World." With some funk and jazz thrown in for good measure, the Sparrow's calypso, with its driving bass, soaring horns and memorable refrains, comes hot and sweaty. The Sparrow slowed things down for an odd rendition of "My Way," during which he exhibited his fine vocal range.
Nigeria's juju master King Sunny Ade' followed with a generous set that exploded with intricately layered rhythms over a kaleidoscope of pulsating percussion. Ade' led his six singer-dancers through richly textured vocal chants, reaching a zenith during "Africa," in which they encouraged the audience to join in the dancing. Following a Yoruba tradition of appreciation, audience members climbed onstage to shower Ade' with money, placing bills on his forehead and generally adding to the music's infectious jubilation.
Closing the show was Jamaica's Burning Spear, who showcased a crack band in a brief but satisfying set. His soulful voice burned through the harsh and mesmerizing "Slavery Days." And he closed with a tribute, "Marcus Garvey," an appropriate way to end an inspiring evening of musical unity.