Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Acoustic Africa II: Mali meets Zimbabwe

Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum, Oliver Mtukudzi
Report and photos by Banning Eyre

The second edition of Acoustic Africa (tour dates here!) is now rolling across North America.  The series presents three African artists on the same stage, each with just a few support musicians, and collaborating interactively on each others' repertoires.  This edition features Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum of Mali, and Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe.  I caught up with them at the Somerville Theater in Boston on February 27, and found a beautiful and fascinating exchange going on between great artists from two of my favorite musical countries.  Interviews and music from this tour will be featured on an upcoming edition of Afropop Worldwide, "21st Century Troubadours."

Afel is a champion of northern Mali's Sonrai and other regional traditions.  He was long part of Ali Farka Toure's ensemble, and has led his own exquisite group for many years now.  All three of these artists make expert use of their counties' indigenous music styles, but Afel is the most authentically "traditional" musician among them.  He appears here with Mamadou Kelly on guitar and vocals and Yoro Cisse on the one-string lute (monochord or njurkel) and one-string violin (njarka).  Afel has never brought his full ensemble to the US, so this is a first chance for Americans to experience the particularly deep spell this music can cast when played live by musicians of this caliber.

Afel Bocoum

Afel and Habib have toured together before, and in fact Habib has a number of songs that draw on the music of Mali's northern region, so Habib and his musicians (Souleymane Ann on percussion and vocals, and Abdoul Wahab Berthe on bass and kamele n'goni) are well prepared to support Afel on the desert styles he knows best.  In Boston, when Afel spread the wings of his white robe to dance the elegant takamba dance, Habib was right there with his guitar.

Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum
For Oliver Mtukudzi, Tuku to his fans, all this Malian music has been a discovery.  Tuku told me he's been running into Habib at festivals for years and very much likes his sound.  But arranging and playing this tour has been a profound learning experience for the Zimbabwean star.  He said it made him really feel like not only a Zimbabwean, but an African.  In the show, it is particularly sweet to see Tuku and Afel, the south and the north, grooving together and clearly delighted by each others' musicality.

Afel and Tuku

Both Habib Koite and Oliver Mtukudzi are well-loved popular musicians in their countries.  Neither was raised to play traditional music--although Habib was born to a griot family in Kayes, near Mali's border with Senegal.  Instead, they have wooed fans with highly individualized amalgams of local traditions, filtered through their broad experience of popular music in general.  They craft songs that draw upon, adapt, or merge folkloric sources, but are in the end personal creations.  This makes them both superbly well suited to this sort of collaboration.  They have the ears, the instincts, and the flexibility to fit in with other traditions and create easy, organic musical hybrids.

Habib, Afel, Tuku
Habib and Afel
All three of these artists play guitar, but are first and foremost singer/songwriters.  Vocally, they harmonize together to great effect throughout this show, which wisely, is not broken into three sections, one for each artist, but rather ebbs and flows with artists constantly regrouping in different formations song by song.  Whey the three principles play guitar together, joined by Mamadou Kelly at times, the blend is rich with chiming, ringing sonic textures.  None of these is a world-class soloist on guitar, so we don't get a lot of guitar theatrics.  The strongest soloing comes from Habib, whose finger-picked, nylon string lines do rise clearly above the jangling bed of guitar sound, and did certainly rouse the crowd at the Somerville Theater a number of times during the show I saw. 

Habib Koite
Tuku is the real veteran among these artists, with some 60 albums to his credit in Zimbabwe.  Looking thinner and rather worldly-wise these days, Tuku still has his gifts--that raspy soul-inflected voice, a loose amiable stage presence, and dance moves that challenge his collaborators.  Tuku is famous for sharp dance routines perfected with various bandmates over the years.  He and his dancers have developed a trademark trick of freezing in position for a time, and waiting for a musical cue to release them.  It is great to see him doing this with Habib and Afel, though the Malians still have their work cut out for them to match Tuku's fluid, angular moves.  Dance is as much a cultural language as music, and the contrast between Afel's graceful takamba and Tuku's loose-limbed Zimbabwean high-stepping makes that point forcefully. 

Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi

All of the artists in this year's Acoustic Africa tour have become fascinated by the mysterious resonances linking the melodious, polyrhytmic sounds of Mali and Zimbawe.   I say mysterious because there is no history that links these two distant, landlocked nations, one in the west African sahel, the other in the high plateau of southern Africa.  And yet, the interlocking melodies of the Shona mbira (thumb piano) seem right at home with the subtle melodic textures of Malian Mande music, especially the kora (harp) and balafon (xylophone).  While neither of these Mande instruments are present in this show, they echo in the Habib's guitar playing in particular.  To tease out these and other connections, Habib, Afel and Tuku created a beautiful new song called "Malizim."  It begins with mbira, played by Phillip Tzikirai, and unfolds into an effervescent string jam with each of the principles singing a verse, and all harmonizing together on the chorus.  The artists told me that when they first came up on the groove for this song, the Zimbabwean musicians said it was a song from their traditions, and the Malians said the same.  That's when they knew they were getting somewhere!

Phillip Tzikirai on mbira

When "Malizim" hits full stride, Phillip Tzikirai puts down his mbira and picks up his hosho (shakers) to dance across the stage, punching out distinctive Shona rhythms.

Phillip's hosho break

"Malizim" pulls together the strands of this unique musical summit in a most satisfying way.  I was less persuaded by the show's closer, a pounding take on the classic "Malaika."  It feels a bit like the players were looking for something to put a splashy exclamation point on a show that is in fact, very subtle.  (The first rendition of Acoustic Africa put Habib together with Dobet Gnaore of Ivory Coast and Vusi Mahlasela of South Africa.  Each brought four support musicians rather than two, and with everyone on stage, they pulled off a blowout finale that was truly out-of-this-world.)  The problem in this finale starts with the song choice.  Given what Angelique Kidjo has done with "Malaika," other artists should beware.  Angelique took what is essentially a hotel band standard and turned it into a signature showcase for her spectacular voice.  As fine as they are at the mic, none of the artists in Acoustic Africa can touch that.  They would have been better off working with one of Tuku's rousing sing-along numbers as the closer.  But no matter.  It's a small flaw in an otherwise terrific show.

It is unlikely that Americans will get another chance to see Malian and Zimbabwean artists interacting this way on an American stage anytime soon.   So check out the ACOUSTIC AFRICA 2011 TOUR DATES, and if you are within range of any of these shows, don't miss it!

Africa Acoustic soundcheck in Boston:

Tuku, Abdoul Berthe, Yoro Cisse
Mamadou Kelly, Phillip Tzikirai
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