After seven hours of continuous music at Celebrate Brooklyn’s Africa Festival, you know what really hits the spot? More African music! Well, that’s the way it was on Saturday, July 17, the apex day in another amazing musical summer in New York. Straight from the ecstasy of Konono No 1, blowing out the finale at the Prospect Park bandshell with urban-electric Congo dance music, one could hop a subway to Joe’s Pub and keep the Congolese action going with ace guitarist and bandleader, Diblo Dibala.
Diblo is an old friend of Afropop’s. We interviewed and recorded him working in a Paris studio with his group Matchatcha back in 1992. These days, Diblo fronts a small combo, handling the vocals and lead guitar himself, with just rhythm guitar, drums, and the powerhouse Ngouma Lokito on bass. And of course, dancers! Diblo’s group included three, and as his songs spun into sebene mode with cycling guitar lines and the crack of clave on the snare drum, those hips began to swivel. Diblo still calls the music “soukous,” which was the popular name for Congo music during those heady days when he first hit the scene as one of the genre’s hottest guitarists. He’s still got it too. His solo lines sounded as bright, crisp, and nimble as ever.
This act preserves a golden moment in Congo music history, when small combos were in, and guitar was king. Diblo handles the vocals on his own these days, from rumba croon, to his own chanted animation. He sounds good too, maybe not Papa Wemba good, but you can tell he’s worked hard to cover the music’s demanding vocal requirements. Near the end of his set, Diblo threw in an obligatory mutwashi, a rolling triplet rhythm from his home region in Kasai, and long a Diblo signature.
From Joe’s Pub, I headed up the East Side to a church hall where well over 1000 Ethiopians had gathered for the New York debut of star singer Teddy Afro. Afropop covered Teddy’s DC debut back in January. The reason these debuts are happening is that, not long ago, Teddy was released from jail in Ethiopia—the offence was automotive, but the motivation behind it appears to have been political, aimed at tamping down Teddy’s criticisms of the current government. Anyway, free to tour again, Teddy is making his rounds, and for Ethiopians, it’s a tremendously exciting occasion. Some had driven all the way from the DC area for this show, which kicked off after midnight when Teddy came to the stage in his country’s colors: red, green, and gold. The crowd—among which I was one of just a handful of non-Ethiopians—went nuts.
Teddy’s first set included some deep reggae, a beautiful ballad, and a crowd-pleasing rendition of his biggest hit, “Yastaseryal,” the song that got him in trouble with the government for its implicit negative comparison between this regime and Haille Sellasie’s, prior to his overthrow in 1974. As this song played, waves of joy passed through the audience swaying blissfully with hands, cellphones, and Flip cameras held high. Teddy responded with an ear-to-ear smile. He is a truly delightful entertainer to watch, and his rapport with his audience is a moving thing to behold. His voice is warm and reedy, capable of the elaborate melismas of more typical Ethiopian music, but also of the clear, melody power a good reggae hit requires. Obviously, these folks were settling in for a long night of music. But after nearly 12 hours, I was through. I left this one last party, newly awed by the richness and variety of African musical life in New York City.
Teddy, singing his biggest hit, "Yasteseryal."