This year, Washington will see the Africa Fete tour at the 9:30 club rather than in the Kennedy Center's parking lot. That's just a matter of logistics, but the more intimate venue is also appropriate musically. For where 1998's lineup featured performers who had embraced rock, funk and dance beats, 1999's has a gentler, more acoustic bent. If Baaba Maal will rock the joint on Thursday, Oliver Mtukuzdi and Taj Mahal & Toumani Diabate will more likely lilt it. A sampler album, "Africa Fete '99" (Palm Pictures), provides a quick introduction to this year's bill, but all three of its acts also have recent albums.
Baaba Maal: 'Live at the Royal Festival Hall'
A selection of "audio extracts" from a DVD of a London concert, Maal's "Live at the Royal Festival Hall" (Palm Pictures) contains only four songs, yet runs 41 minutes. The Senegalese singer-songwriter is backed by a 16-member troupe of musicians and dancers and joined by several musical guests, including Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who plays on the most traditional tune, "Koni." Maal's band, Daande Lenol, includes such African folk instruments as talking drum and kora, a lutelike 21-string instrument, but also electric guitar and saxophone. In the course of such sprawling songs as "African Woman" or "Douwayra," Maal and his accompanists can travel from West Africa to Westernized and back again. The effect is epic, but with only four songs the album also feels constricted. It's merely a tease for the full concert.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)
Oliver Mtukuzdi: 'Tuku Music'
Although Oliver Mtukuzdi has been a star in Zimbabwe for 25 years, "Tuku Music" (Putamayo) is his first U.S. release. The singer-guitarist's nickname is "Tuku," so the album title celebrates his own style, which is considered so distinctive as to be its own genre. To Western ears, though, Mtukuzdi's music doesn't sound quite so singular. Its rippling syncopation, relaxed grooves and call-and-response lyrics are familiar from many African-derived genres that have developed in the Caribbean and the American South. Still, such songs as "Mai Varamaba" and "Dzoka Uyamwe" are delightfully infectious, with chattering rhythms that are both easygoing and immediate.
The only one of these songs with predominantly English lyrics, "Wake Up," is simply a plea for international unity and understanding, but the liner notes reveal that many of the album's Shona lyrics address Africa's AIDS crisis. Mtukuzdi's music (and message) is less incendiary than that of his former musical associate, Zimbabwean protest singer Thomas Mapfumo, but its communal feel suits the appeals for cooperation and brotherhood. When Mtukuzdi trades lines with backup singers Mwendi Chibindi and Mary Bell, it seems possible that the entire world might come into sync with the sauntering cadence.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)
Taj Mahal & Toumani Diabate: 'Kulanjan'
Detecting an affinity between the finger-picking techniques of Delta blues guitarists and West African kora players, veteran bluesman Taj Mahal arranged a summit with kora master Toumani Diabate and other Malian musicians. The result is "Kulanjan" (Hannibal), whose 12 songs are frequently engaging, if not stylistically seamless.
Mahal sings and picks such blues standards as "Ol' Georgie Buck" and "Catfish Blues," while Diabate and his cohorts offer the title tune and other songs rooted in Malian tradition. In addition to the kora player, the Malian contingent comprises six musicians, including singers Kassemady Diabate and Ramatou Diakite. They generally slow their traditional style to match Mahal's Delta grooves, although the company goes up-tempo for "Fanta," a Malian praise song that demonstrates the continuity between West African and Cajun music. The most striking tracks are those, such as "Queen Bee" and "Take This Hammer," that contrast Mahal's gruff vocals with Diakite's delicate singing and melodies, which sometimes seem as much Asian as African. (For an example of pure Malian kora music, investigate Toumani Diabate and Ballak Sissoko's "New Ancient Strings," another recent Hannibal release; the percussive timbres and intricate melodies of these instrumental duets suggest Bach more than Robert Johnson.)
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)
Salif Keita: 'Papa'
Last year's Africa Fete headliner, Salif Keita, has incorporated many Western pop elements into his music, but the singer-songwriter's style--and his keening tenor--are so distinctive that he's never lost his way. Keita's new "Papa" was co-produced by former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid in New York, Paris and the Malian capital of Bamako and features such guests as disco diva Grace Jones and jazz-rock organist John Medeski. But Toumani Diabate also performs on the album, which easily bridges the distance between Mali and Manhattan.
The album opens with the disco-compatible "Bolon" and also features the upbeat "Tolon Willie (The Party Is On)." (The latter's Grace Jones rap about "children of the night" sounds a little more vampiric than was probably intended.) Most of the songs, however, are yearning ballads, often in praise of God. The title song is an elegy for Keita's father, "the master of the bush and its mystery," and "Mama" celebrates his daughter's marriage, while "Together (Gnoken Fe)" is a parable of community. With these songs, Keita shows that--despite years in Paris and on the road--his music remains rooted in Mali.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8184.)
Amadou and Mariam: 'Sou Ni Tile'
The harmonies of Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia echo those of Taj Mahal and Ramatou Diakite, but theirs is not a cross-cultural union. The singer-songwriters grew up near each other in Bamako, and met at that city's Institute for the Young Blind. (Doumbia was born sightless; Bagayoko's vision was blurred by cataracts.) Now married, the couple have crafted a blend of Western and African music as assured as Keita's. (Bagayoko and Keita once played in the Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, the band that introduced both musicians to French audiences.)
Billed as Amadou and Mariam, the twosome has been recording since 1988; its latest album, "Sou Ni Tile" (Tinder), features songs about their enduring romance ("Mon Amour, Ma Cherie") in a hostile world ("Combattants"). Among the liveliest songs is "Dogons," a dance tune that's the Malian equivalent of the audience participation chants of Washington's go-go bands; when Bagayoko commands, "People from Kohora, stand up/ People from Bankasi, stand up," he's giving Bamako's version of a shoutout to Southeast and Northeast.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8185.)