Monday, March 21, 2011

Afrobeat Chicago: A Few Amazing Weeks!

The last few weeks have been quite satisfying for world music fans in Chicago! Here’s a set of video highlights from five events that were particularly special. Vusi Mahlasela, Chiwoniso and Ricardo Lemvo performed at the Mayne Stage; the Yemen Blues and Acoustic Africa concerts took place at Old Town of Folk School Music.

Vusi Mahlasela: The meaning of “ubuntu”





I had the chance to visit with Mahlasela by phone a few days before his concert, and besides the pleasure of hearing the velvety voice of the singer, poet and activist known in his land as “The Voice” on the other line, I learned about “ubuntu”. Mahlasela explained how in his music he always strives to express this concept, which originated in the Bantu languages of South Africa. It is a philosophy best described by the phrase “I am because you are; you are because I am”, which emphasizes our relations with each other, and focuses on the bond of our common humanity. He also described how he believes music as a universal language transmits this message without any need for translation.




Certainly, the focus on “ubuntu” was evident at his concert, where he and fellow countryman and master guitarist Mongezi Ntaka (former lead guitarist with Lucky Dube and the Slaves) shared an intimate evening, full of gentle melodies that were accompanied by Mahlasela’s stories.The last song of the evening was a particularly beautiful tune that we all swayed to as quite a few members in the audience sang along. So I inquired to the woman who had been singing next to me, and found out it was South Africa’s National Anthem. It seemed fitting conclusion to the evening that Mahlasela, whose songs were part of the soundtrack of South Africa´s anti-apartheid revolution and subsequent freer state (he performed at Nelson Mandela´s inauguration) sang the national song of his homeland, and in the spirit of “ubuntu”, made it a song for all of us.


Chiwoniso: A rebel woman’s soulful groove



Chiwoniso, singer-songwriter and instrumentalist who has spent most of her life between the U.S. and Zimbabwe, brought her fusion of African-inspired pop and soul grooves to Chicago. She specializes in playing the mbira, an instrument of great historical and spiritual significance in her land. The evening started off with several magical mbira solos, where Chiwoniso told the story of the power of the mbira to heal and to summon the ancestors. One of the songs was directed to Chaminuka, the prophet, seer and healer of the Shona People, who foresaw the coming of settlers and in his visions spoke to the needs for people to love each other and understand each other´s differences.

After several mbira solos, a five-member group (drums, percussion, bass, guitar and keyboards) backed up Chiwoniso´s soaring, powerful vocals that seamlessly interwove English and Shona, and her exuberant tunes kept a small but enthusiastic audience off their seats most of the evening. I think Chaminuka would have been pleased.




Yemen Blues: The human tribe’s music



From the moment Ravid Kahalani takes the stage, there’s really no way to avoid being totally mesmerized by his presence, and amazed by the level of musicianship he achieves. I have had the opportunity to see him three times now - first, here in Chicago, as part of the Idan Raichel project, where his primal growl-laden blues and some Mowtown-esque moves (one of his main influences is Stevie Wonder, according to Kahalani) really stole the show. Then, last Fall at WOMEX in Copenhagen, he blew the audience away when he performed with Yemen Blues, an extraordinarily talented super group of nine musicians, which he co-founded with acclaimed bassist and oud player Omer Avital. And another enormously high-energy performance again recently in Chicago! So I can witness to the fact that his artful melange of traditional Yemeni Jewish songs, Saharan blues, avant-garde chamber music and percussion (including thousands of years old tradition of percussing on olive cans) in some mysterious way, despite musical contradictions and juxtapositions, manifests the most captivating universality - as if the human tribe’s music were being expressed in a common song.


“It doesn’t matter where you come from, your language is my language. It doesn’t matter to which God you are praying, because the melody always comes from the heart”, Ravid had said when we spoke on the phone days before his concert. He also quoted the phrase from the stage in the concert. The audience, of all ages and characteristics - a real exemplar of the human tribe - definitely understood the message, and getting up to dance, totally rocked out at the concert. Because as Kahalani also said, “At the end of the day, we all came here to be together and to sing and dance."





Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loka: The crazy machine’s dancing spell




Ricardo Lemvo from the D.R. Congo, composes and sings with “Makina Loka”, the band he founded in 1990, and his melodies are tinged with rhythms born upon the Atlantic Ocean´s waves as peoples and their music moved back and forth between the Caribbean and the coast of Africa. The story of his music starts with Afrocuban genres such as the rumba, which emerged in the cultures of African descendants in Cuba. Centuries later, Cuban music with its African sense, now creolized with the other cultures of the island, returned in vinyl recordings to one of its continents of origin, becoming wildly popular throughout Africa. In the fifties, in particular, Cuban sounds took root in Ricardo Lemvo’s homeland, and that country developed the Congolese rumba. Now, Lemvo has transformed those genres anew, layering pan-African styles upon a structure of pan-Latin styles – salsa, cumbia, bachata. The results are a truly irresistible uber-African-AfroLatin beat.


Lemvo is enormously charming and charismatic on stage and sings several languages - English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Kikongo. He expressed a love for languages when he spoke to me on the phone from his California home before the concert (In fact, his grandfather was a famous translator, who translated the Bible form Kikongo to English) and further explained to me that the name he chose for the band – “Makina Loka” is a translator´s pun – that is, if the translator happens to speak Kikongo, Portuguese and Spanish. In Kikongo, it means to “dance under a spell”, and in the other two languages it is a slightly misspelled “crazy machine”. Whether crooning afropop ballads in Portuguese, infusing soukous tinged rhythms with a Latin sense, or shaking salsa up with a dose of afrobeats, his crazy machine most definitely put us under a dancing spell here!





Acoustic Africa

The Acoustic Africa project, a second installment of the International Music Network´s project, focuses on the African guitar tradition. Afel Boucoum, and Habib Koite from Mali and Oliver Mtzukudzi from Zimbabwe brought us a magical, entrancing evening here in Chicago. About half of the time, Koite, Boucoum and Mtzukuzi each took turns as soloists, backed up by one or two other musicians, and then the other half, the group performed at large



It was a two-hour sonic tapestry of intricate, delicate melodies created in the interaction between super stars from two countries whose geographies and musical traditions are quite distant from each other. The results were various blends of African folk, tempered by a touch of desert blues swing, with the three guitars engaging in a beautiful dialogue, and all musicians amazingly capable of dancing and playing their instruments all at the same time.


Although the limelight shone most of the time on the guitarists, the superb mbira playing by Phillip Tzikirai was one of the evening’s highlights, surpassed only by his own dancing and shaker playing. The diverse audience which included a large number of Zimbabweans, Malians and Senegalese, shouted out requests and sang along to quite a few songs in the evening. Koite said Chicago was his favorite audience so far. I´m sure we knew he most likely says something like that to all his audiences, but we nevertheless roared in appreciation.





Photos, videos and report by Catalina Maria Johnson
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