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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

`Acoustic' tour unveils a more harmonious Africa

October 25, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The "Acoustic Africa" tour began quietly Monday night at the El Rey Theatre with a gentle balafon solo, followed by the sounds of a kora and various percussion thumps and scratches. The mood established, then came the arrival of the three headliners: South Africa's Vusi Mahlasela, Mali's Habib Koite and Ivory Coast's Dobet Gnahore.

Minutes later, Mahlasela referred to the three areas of the continent represented in the show. While he alluded only briefly to the coming-together qualities that music can provide, the warm, interactive comradeship of the performance itself offered a view of an Africa vastly different from the horrors seen in dispatches from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and beyond.

The concert, part of a tour sponsored by the Putumayo World Music label in support of the recent CD "Acoustic Africa," emphasized laid-back individual performances, as well as a variety of duo and trio combinations. Mahlasela, a confident, magisterial presence, a social activist featured in the documentary "Amandla!," displayed a powerful vocal timbre and impressive guitar skills, often skimming through rapid melodic passages with his voice in harmony with instrumental lines. One song described a boy who defied his elders. "It was me," he said. Others rocked with irresistible rhythms of South African highlife.

Koite's songs simmered with the intensity of Delta blues. Known for his grooves and rock-inspired guitar, he revealed more subtle qualities for this event. Like Mahlasela, he told stories in association with his songs, occasionally breaking out into the charismatic presence of his solo concerts, tossing guitar licks back and forth with the seven-piece backup ensemble. Unlike Koite and Mahlasela, Gnahore, 23, has never toured the U.S. But she will be seen here again. She's a dynamic singer, the airy sound of her high notes recalling the focused timbre of Salif Keita. If her songs were underscored with repetitive groove rhythms, she more than made up for it with her astonishingly mobile dance gyrations. Gnahore displayed powerful star potential.

Although each performer offered impressive solo numbers, "Acoustic Africa" avoided the tendency to become little more than a set of solo sequences. Moving smoothly from one combination to another, the three artists, backed by a first-rate, versatile set of musicians, sang in lovely vocal harmonies. Their engaging performance overcame language barriers, communicating in a way that transcended differences of race, culture, ethnicity and religion.

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