Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Salif Keita and Johnny Clegg in New York

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

Last week, two Afropop veterans gave remarkable performances in New York.  On Sunday and Monday, Johnny Clegg played the City Winery, with his lean new Johnny Clegg Band.  Then, on Saturday, Salif Keita returned to the Apollo Theater with his absolutely unique African traditional rock band.  Both artists gave fully committed performances and were enthusiastically received by near-fanatical audiences.  There were intriguing differences and similarities between the two shows, but they both gave solid evidence that, for all the great new blood coming into African music these days, there's nothing quite like seeing the old lions of African pop, still in form even as they hover around 60!

Johnny Clegg   Salif Keita

First the differences.  Clegg is a white Englishman who grew up in South Africa, and made music that played a crucial cultural role in the struggle to end apartheid.  Keita is an African albino who struggled to make a career in independent Mali, and ultimately succeeded on the strength of one of the most uniquely powerful voices on the continent, and exceptional songwriting and arranging abilities.  Now the similarities.  Both artists had to transgress strict social norms to create their art.  As a white boy in fiercely race-conscious South Africa, Clegg took to moving with Zulu pals in the townships, learning their language, dance, and guitar style.  Keita, a descendant of the first king of the Mande Empire (Sunjata Keita) defied his noble ancestry when he chose to sing, learning the style of the Mande griots who were supposed to be praising him.  In the late 70s and early 80s, both artists sought to make a fusion between the traditional music realms they had entered and the rock 'n roll they loved.  So we have two transgressive singers merging African roots and classic rock.  Add to this the fact that both have continued to lead a succession bands all these years, and both command sufficient loyalty among their fans that they can still tour the world to adulation and acclaim.

Last week, Clegg sold out the City Winery two nights in a row, and his agent said he could probably have done so for four.  The night I attended, the crowd was mostly white, older, heavily South African--though there was some youth in evidence, proving Clegg-mania can jump generations.  All were completely exultant at hearing Clegg and his band move through intersperse songs from his 2010 release Human with sturdy classics like "Scatterlings of Africa," "Spirit of the Great Heart," "Kilimanjaro," "Bullets for Bafazane," "Take My Heart Away," "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World," "Tough Enough," his aching ode to the martyrs of the anti-apartheid struggle "Asimbonanga," and the soulful anthem "Dela," a closer that left more than a few (myself included) reaching for their hankies.  This was more than nostalgia.  Clegg's sound, a blend of Zulu roots and Celtic rock, can sound a bit dated at times.  But he still has a fine voice, and performs with extraordinary commitment.  He's a gifted raconteur, deft on guitar and concertina (the re-jiggered Zulu variety) and generally such a winning performer that whatever reservations you might have, you're just about sure to be in his pocket by the end of the set.  It's been some years since Clegg played New York, and the pent up expectation of his die-hard fans certainly helped. [Stay tuned on air, and watch this site for a lively and fascinating interview with Clegg about the songs and story of the new album, Human.]

Salif Keita did his first gig at the Apollo two or three years ago, and I recall it as one of the most powerful African shows I have ever seen.  At the time, he was just rolling out his current band, featuring lots of traditional percussion and strings--essentially a rock band built around calabashes and gut strings, not withstanding two fine electric guitarists, including the inimitable Ousmane Kouyate.  The crowd that night was substantially African, but a local Harlem vibe also pervaded the sold out hall, and the high-summer mood was electric.  Keita has been back in town regularly since then, including a show at Central Park Summerstage this past season.  So it was quite impressive that he once again sold out the house.  And this time, it was a homecoming.  From the start of his set, people began flooding the stage to shake his hand, hug him, have their picture taken with him, throw money at him, or just dance.  It was as much a social occasion as a concert.  And Keita seemed to thrive on the chaos, singing songs from his recent CD La Difference (a meditation on albinism and tolerance) with standbys like the fiercely driving "Madan," and the his ever incendiary song of thanks to Guinea's Sekou Toure, "Mandjou" (an occasion for long solos around), and also a couple of new, unreleased songs.

And this was only the second song...
The social activity onstage did change the mood, and if we hadn't had the luxury of seeing so much of Salif in recent years, that might have been a minus.  But as it was, you just went with the spirit.  Hey, if Keita can sing that well with all this going on around him, who are we to gripe?  Usually Keita brings the audience onstage during his last song, and slips away in the crowd.  But by the time that came around at the Apollo, it seemed most of the house had already been on stage, and Keita's sudden, unceremonious exit was easily observed.  Again fitting the mood of a house party, Keita and his band played the songs long, at least three topping 15 minutes.  Long solos by Kouyate, and the amazing kamelengoni (harp) player Harouna Samake earned well deserved roars of approval from the crowd.

I don't want to push this comparison too far, but I must make a note about dancing.  Johnny Clegg was at one time a first-rate practitioner of the Zulu war dance, umghubha, involving lifting a foot literally above one's head and stamping it down squarely on the downbeat--in times of old, crushing the heads of enemies.  Clegg used to do this with his principle Zulu partners, Sipho Mchunu (in Juluka) and the late Dudu Zulu (in Savuka).  This time he brought two young lads to create the requisite spectacle, but he did rouse for a few mighty stamps after they guys had strutted their stuff.

Keita, on the other hand, has never been known to do much dancing on stage.  I've seen him manhandle a few microphone stands, but in general, he's a fairly staid presence on stage, more apt to kneel in seeming prayer on stage than to engage in any sort of athletics.  He mostly generates intensity with his voice and his deeply serene persona.  But at the Apollo last Saturday night, he at least three times leapt high into the air and kicked his feet out behind him.  Though unexpected, this was classic Keita--quirky, fun, and oddly sweet.  Whether this was a spontaneous and exceptional moment or a carefully rehearsed stunt, it was sheer delightful to watch.

The leap!

Harouna Samake
Ousmane Kouyate
Clegg's agend, Anne-Marie Martins with Johnny Clegg wine!

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