The logo that flashed periodically on the Howard Theatre’s video screens Monday night proclaimed “USA” and, in smaller letters, “United Sounds of Africa.” But it might just as well have read, “NWA” — for “Nigerians With Attitude.”
Rather than a pan-African event, the concert was a showcase for musicians from a single city: Jos, in central Nigeria. As for the performers’ styles, both musical and sartorial, a lot of them hailed from Los Angeles.
The headliner was 2face Idibia, whose music encompassed reggae and hip-hop but was heavier on Anglo-American folk-rock and cosmic soul. Backed by a seven-piece band and two female singers, 2face started on a political note but soon switched to celebrating love. The centerpiece of the one-hour set was a meandering version of his 2006 hit, “African Queen,” that featured funk bass and a jazzy saxophone solo. It sounded sort of like Van Morrison but with less soul.
The same band, minus the singers, supported J. Martins, whose music came closest to the high-lifestyle that’s one of West Africa’s most captivating musical exports. Although the smooth-voiced singer included one number with a reggae lope, most of his material was lilting and upbeat, led by shimmering guitar and the two percussionists’ chattering interplay. Perhaps because Martins did seven songs in 30 minutes, the band never got to lock in a serious groove. There were sprightly passages that begged to be extended beyond the limits of a multi-artist package tour.
The three performers who preceded 2face and Martins were rappers, accompanied only by prerecorded techno/hip-hop backing tracks. That format can stifle spontaneity, but Brymo, Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince made it work by working the crowd. The three men spent little or no time onstage, preferring to stalk or prance through the small but enthusiastic audience, dancing with or serenading various fans.
Vocally, all three were similar, although Brymo sang more than the other two. Their raps were in English and employed such well-worn phrases as “hell yeah,” “wassup wassup” and “pump it up.” The latter is the title of a song by Jagz, who won the show’s originality award by declaiming over Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” chorus. Jagz also proved himself a quick study when he called out to “everybody in the DMV.” That reference drew a livelier response than any to “USA.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.