SAN DIEGO — At last spring's 18th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, nearly 400,000 people jammed the streets of the French Quarter to watch performances by more than 300 musical heavyweights, including such American legends as Fats Domino, Etta James and Allen Toussaint.
But the star of the two-week event, according to a review in Rolling Stone magazine, was a relatively unknown import from Africa, Orlando Julius (O.J.) Ekemode and his Nigerian All-Stars, who "knocked out a Saturday-afternoon crowd . . . with a broiling one-hour set of brassy, rocked-up Afrobeat."
San Diego promoter Rob Hagey is hoping Ekemode and his 14-member group of Nigerian musicians, singers and dancers will have a similar effect on local pop fans attending this year's Michelob Street Scene on Saturday in the Gaslamp Quarter.
If Ekemode has anything to say about it, Hagey won't be disappointed.
"Everywhere we play, it's always packed," Ekemode said of his band's current U.S. tour. "We've been trying for a long time to make this music as popular in America as it already is in Europe and Great Britain, and finally it's happening.
"More and more people here are becoming very hip to African music, and we're very glad."
The contemporary music of Africa--rooted in traditional tribal rhythms, melodies and chants--is making its way into the American pop music market.
Over the last few years, such rock artists as the Talking Heads, Mick Fleetwood and Paul Simon cracked open the door with critically acclaimed albums recorded with African musicians.
Now, African pop stars like Ekemode, King Sunny Ade and Fela are pushing that door wide open with albums of their own on American labels and relentless touring schedules.
"African music is the root of all the music--the funk, the jazz, the blues, the rhythm-and-blues--that is popular today," said Ekemode, who since 1977 has maintained residences both in Oakland and in his native Nigeria.
"That's why it's something people can relate to worldwide. But only after rock bands like the Talking Heads went to Africa and introduced this music to the Western world did record companies outside of Africa start showing some interest.
"So now that they are spending money on African performers, they're helping our music become more popular because people finally have the chance to hear it."
Like Africa's other best-known musical export, King Sunny Ade, Ekemode, 44, is from Nigeria. But while Ade's "juju" music is melodic and pop-oriented, Ekemode's "Afrobeat" is more rhythmic and traditional-sounding.
The lyrics of most of his songs are in the Yoruba language, and the instrumental lineup of his band includes such traditional African percussion instruments as the congas, the talking and trap drums, and the shekere, a dried gourd with strings and beads that is similar to a maraca.
Since he first established himself as a musician in southwestern Nigeria in the 1950s, however, Ekemode has also Westernized his music somewhat by studying records by such American be-boppers as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
As a result, he said, his Nigerian All-Stars also play such contemporary instruments as the electric guitar, bass and keyboards. Besides singing and playing African drums, Ekemode also plays saxophone.
"I've put some Western influences into my music, but only in the instruments we play," he said. "Everything else is still very traditional--my roots are in the Afrobeat rhythms, and that's something I'm never going to change.
"If I change too much, then the young kids will never hear those roots that have been there for many, many years. And it's very important to me to keep Africa's musical culture alive."
Over the last 30 years, Ekemode has released more than a dozen albums in Nigeria. His first American album, "Dance Afrobeat," came out in 1985 on Afrobeat Records, and his second, as yet untitled, will be released next month on an independent label owned by agent Paul Troutman, who also brought King Sunny Ade to the United States.
An established superstar in his homeland, Ekemode said he's confident that his new album will lead him straight to the top of the American pop charts as well.
"Music is like a language; it unites people no matter where they're from," he said. "And that is because the roots of music, like the roots of language, are the same."
This year's Michelob Street Scene will take place on two roped-off Gaslamp Quarter blocks: 5th Avenue between J and K streets, and K Street between 4th and 5th avenues. Stages will be set up on both ends of the L-shaped concert site for five hours of nonstop music, from 6 to 11 p.m.
Opening the dance-concert will be North County's Borracho y Loco, who play a blend of vintage calypso, Latin salsa, juju and reggae.
They'll be followed by Omar and the Howlers, an American roots band from Austin, Tex.; Ekemode and his Nigerian All-Stars; Mississippi Delta blues legend John Lee Hooker, and blues revivalists the Fabulous Thunderbirds, also from Austin.