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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

Vintage African groups still boast energy, elegance

October 13, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It was an evening of golden oldies Friday night at the Cerritos Center.

No, it wasn't the Drifters, the latest get-together of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or the arrival of the Simon & Garfunkel "Old Friends" tour. But it was fascinating nonetheless.

The program was titled "African Soundscape," and the featured acts were the Cool Crooners and the Mahotella Queens. Those names don't ring a bell? They do in southern Africa, where they have been familiar since the apartheid years.

The Cool Crooners include members of the Golden Rhythm Crooners and the Cool Four, a pair of groups whose a cappella harmonies and fancy footwork captivated the Bulawayo township of Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) in the '50s and '60s. The Mahotella Queens, from South Africa, started out in the '60s as backup singers for Mahlathini, the gravel-voiced "Lion of Soweto," and helped establish mbaquanga, an innovative blending of traditional music with American R&B, blues and gospel.

Though their members range in age from their late 50s to their 70s (with the exception of the Crooners' new addition, Eric Juba, who is 54), both groups are still in top form. The Crooners, garbed in elegant white suits, executed dance steps displaying their vigorous physicality, their dramatic sense of rhythm and their whimsical sense of humor. In one of their best-known numbers, "Blue Sky," their vocal gifts poured out in warm, textured harmonies.

The Queens, full of vigor, were equally adept at singing and dancing and ranged with great vocal ease from touching gospel songs to infectious high-life rhythms. Like the Crooners', their marvelously entertaining musicality was a testament to a culture's capacity to survive and triumph over adversity.

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