Thursday, July 7, 2011

Baloji Kicks Off New York's African Music Summer

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

Anyone who caught this inspired, charismatic, genre-busting Congolese MC Baloji during his blizzard-challenged January swing through New York City knew that Central Park Summerstage was the place to be on Sunday, July 3. Once again, the weather was uncooperative--this time with muggy heat and rain showers. But Baloji and his 4-piece Congolese band (a keyboard was added to his guitar/bass/drums combo) once again delivered an exhilarating set, and showed a unique ability to reinvent African traditions in a savvy, club-ready context. 

Baloji at Summerstage (Eyre)

In a nod to Congo pop's tradition of stylishness, Baloji kept on his blue plaid jacket for the first few numbers, which including his brilliant reworking of the 1960 classic "Independence Cha Cha."  Guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku--a veteran of Franco's TPOK Jazz, and a legend in his own right--provided tasty riffs throughout.  Indeed the set was long on roots grooves, and light on anything at all like mainstream hip hop.  It was Baloji's baritone rapping, unpredictable stage moves, and edgy charisma that kept things fresh and contemporary.  Sometime before the song "Karibu Ya Bintu," which Baloji recorded with members of Konono No 1 and later turned into one of the most arresting African pop videos ever made, the jacket came off, and Baloji sweated along with the rest of us.  He collected Dizzy's jacket as well and gave the crowd a sly smile as he handed them off to a stage hand.

Dizzy Mandjeku

From there, we got antics with a bull horn, and the participation of two gyrating dancers, gyrating not in the conventional Congolese mode, but something entirely more quirky and modern--like Baloji himself.  Baloji afterwards worried that his group had not figured out how to take advantage of such a big stage.  But with his long-legged moves and restless nature, this was not a problem.  Expansiveness came naturally.  The energy never flagged, and the 45-minute set left a soggy crowd howling for more.  The weather certainly cut down on the numbers who got to see this exceptional performance, but Baloji made his statement and his mark.  His was the best 45 minutes of the day, and there is no doubt that Baloji is one of the most promising ascendant stars in today's African music. 

Next came Group Doueh from the Western Sahara with an at times mesmerizing set of electric desert blues.  Despite the venerable roots appearance, notably by the group's three large, beautifully adorned front women, this group's sound is an odd fusion of new and old.  There is a traditional lute (soon traded for electric guitar), but many songs ran on keyboard beats a juxtaposition whose novelty wore off quickly.  The most powerful material played down rhythm and featured the dark tonalities and torn vocals that go to the heart of the Saharaoui story--a 40-year saga of conflict, flight, and life in refugee camps and communities.  The guitar work in this group is compelling, though not spectacular as this style can be at its best.  One should not complain about any chance to experience this rare and trenchant musical tradition live.  But the set was uneven and never completely took off.   Perhaps rain and humidity were a factor.  Perhaps it would have worked better in the confines of a club.  With a little tweaking, this could be a very powerful act.  The music is certainly deep, and the singing is terrific.

Group Doueh at Summerstage

Direct from Haiti, Richard Morse and RAM closed out the day with an eclectic set of rara pop.  This group has a tight, percussion-rich sound.  The bass player delivers strong, funky pump, and the guitarist works in a nice blend of African, especially Congolese, riffs.  The set started off relaxed, but  worked up to a pretty good rara frenzy as it neared its end.  The trombone-like rara horns came out, the groove deepened and the soggy crowd, which included a number of delighted Haitians, got moving in earnest.

As for Morse himself, he left most of the work to the band and its female lead singer, his wife Lunise.  Morse is a cousin of Haiti's newly elected president, Michel Martelly, and now serves as "Consellier de President" and works in the palace, quite a twist of fate for this hotel owner and roots music champion.  In a brief backstage chat, Morse seemed mostly preoccupied with his new responsibilities, and dedicated to the task of making Martelly's presidency succeed against the backdrop of earthquake hell, endemic corruption, and generally heavy odds.  On stage, Morse mostly pranced, seemingly possessed of his unexpected prominence--almost above the music.  No matter.  The contradictions of Haiti, circa 2011, were on full display.

Richard Morse
RAM percussion section

Lunise Morse

A few more shots from July 3 Summerstage show....

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