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Taking Afro-pop to the next level

June 05, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Koffi OLOMIDE in action is a sight to behold. Elegant as a peacock, garbed in designer fashions, the Congolese singer-songwriter moves with the slender sensuality and charismatic demeanor of a male diva. His concerts in Africa and Europe, where his music has brought the rhythms of the Congo into the Afro-pop mainstream, are major stadium events, comparable to a performance by a Michael Jackson or a Bruce Springsteen.

Olomide makes his first West Coast appearance Saturday night at the Palladium in a performance featuring a colorful company of 22, including eight dancers, six vocalists and eight musicians. The program will also include the African Acrobats of Kenya (who have been seen on "The Late Show With David Letterman"), Nze Eugene Decoque and the "gyration master," Tony One Week.

Nnamdi Moweta, a KPFK-FM (90.7) and Voice of America radio personality, has been working with producer Mary Ofili for nearly a year to sort through the complicated process of bringing Olomide to Los Angeles.

"This will be his first stop on a tour of major cities," Moweta says. "It takes us back to the first King Sunny Ade show at the Palladium in the mid-'80s -- a very special occasion because it introduced African music to so many people. And this one, I believe, is going to have the same effect."

Although he is still little known in the U.S., Olomide, who was born in the northeast Congolese city of Kisangani in 1956 and raised in Kinshasa in the west Congo, has had a particularly powerful effect upon African audiences. Early last month, at a concert in Benin, the crush of listeners in a stadium that was filled beyond capacity resulted in 17 deaths and dozens of injuries.

Olomide was in transit from Brazzaville to Kinshasa to Europe to the U.S. as this article was being written, and unreachable by phone. He did, however, refer to the Benin concert last week in a conversation on Moweta's radio show.

"I was very unhappy in Benin," he said. "Because I lost very many fans, and this ... will be in my heart for the rest of my career."

Despite the tragedy, the event reflects Olomide's enormous popularity at a time when music provides rare moments of contrast with Africa's turbulent political, social and humanitarian troubles. "I want," he said, "to reach everyone -- Americans, Africans living in the U.S. and African Americans."

African music first began to make its way into the international pop mainstream in the mid-20th century, when Cuban-Caribbean music, the guitar and European horns and drums interfaced with traditional African melodies and rhythms. Performers such as Fela Kuti, Papa Wemba, Baaba Maal, Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita -- to name a very few -- have transformed these elements into an engaging music underscored by irresistibly foot-tapping rhythms.

Olomide, along with Femi Kuti (Fela's son), is taking that music into new territories. In Kuti's case, he is doing so via an artistic alliance with hip-hop. Olomide's perspective is more far reaching -- a spectacular, high-energy visual performance with the fast-paced impact of an MTV music video.

Equally important, adds Moweta, "Koffi has the ability to get so much music out of the drummers, the singers and the dancers. Fela Kuti had the same ability, to get the flow from a stage full of musicians. But Koffi writes very good songs, as well, and has a kind of instinctive feeling for getting in touch with a crowd.

Coming to California "has been a dream, because I've never been there before," Olomide told Moweta. "And I will do everything I can to give everyone a hot show."

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More Afro-pop

Here are a few of the major Afro-pop events coming to the Southland over the summer:

June 23: Orchestra Baobab. A veteran Senegalese dance band formed in 1970 is back after a 15-year hiatus from live appearances. House of Blues, West Hollywood.

June 28: Cesaria Evora. The Cape Verdean diva with her soulful, blues-like mornas opens the Hollywood Bowl's 2003 world-music series.

July 31, Aug. 1: Salif Keita. The voice of the albino artist from Mali is one of the most engaging, instantly identifiable sounds in all of African music. He performs at the Santa Monica Pier on July 31, at the Conga Room on Aug. 1.

Aug. 1: Bembeya Jazz. Like Orchestra Baobab, the Guinean group Bembeya Jazz had a hot streak in the '60s and '70s. After sparse appearances in the '90s, the group is now a fully revitalized ensemble, with many of the original members still on board. Grand Performances at the California Plaza.

Aug. 10: The African Village Festival features Sam Mangwana, who specializes in Congolese rumba, Cuban artist Melena and Brazilian Women of the Drum. John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.

In and On the Air: African sounds, live and recorded, can also be heard regularly at Zanzibar and the Temple Bar, both in Santa Monica, and Atlas in Los Angeles. Nnamdi Moweta's "Afro-Dicia" show airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m. on KPFK (90.7 FM), broadcasts a schedule of African music events, which are also listed on the show's Web site, www.afrodicia.com.

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Koffi Olomide

Where: The Palladium, 6251 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Cost: $35 in advance, $40 at the door; $50 for VIP tickets

Info: (909) 606-9270

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