The third annual Africa Fete tour, headlined by Senegal's Baaba Maal, couldn't have gotten off to a better start than it did at the California Plaza downtown on Wednesday.
The weather was perfect, the sound was good for an outdoor concert and a large, multicultural crowd packed the area to view the free event. The excellent performances by four headline-caliber artists, each playing 45-minute sets, achieved Africa Fete's objective of introducing African and African-rooted music to a broader audience.
Haiti's Boukman Eksperyans showed the most versatility, with synthesizer horn lines and occasional rock guitar solos playing off Haitian percussion and intricate vocal harmonies. The political-spiritual thrust of the group's lyrics was lost, but Boukman compensated with a propulsive bass-and-percussion undertow that got the crowd up and dancing--as did Maal, who was reviewed here recently, in his strong closing set.
Mali's Oumou Sangare may have earned the most deeply felt response. Her understated but forceful set provided an updated take on traditional styles built on repetitive grooves that acquire a hypnotic effect not unlike that of reggae. Percussionist Souley Sibide's solo flurries functioned as the lead instrument over the steady melodies while Abdoulay Fofana's flute provided a cool, melancholic counterpoint to Sangare's pure, high voice and regal bearing.
Nigeria's Femi Kuti, the son of the legendary Fela Kuti, wasted no time with warming up. His 17-piece group Positive Force, an African big band with jazzy horns and a driving rhythm section supporting the leader's alto sax, burned from the start in the family's Afrobeat style. But Kuti wisely served up the grooves in concise doses, and has obviously learned from his father what it takes to be a dynamic performer.