by Susan Kepecs
It always moves me when people, faced with adversity, make art. There’s been a lot of that around here lately – the citizens of Wisconsin have been superlatively creative in the struggle against Dictator Walker. But nowhere have our brothers and sisters survived more catastrophic political and economic assaults than in Africa. Somehow, through slavery, colonialism, economic exploitation, environmental disasters and post-colonial strongmen, the spirits of the arts persevere. Beyond a shadow of doubt, African musicians make some of the most magnificent music on earth. Get ready to savor the sound on Thursday night, (March 10), when the 2011 Acoustic Africa tour takes the Wisconsin Union Theater stage. This is music from the Orishas, a panacea for the Walker-weary blues.
The Acoustic Africa tours (they’re semi-acoustic, really) sound more intimate and closer to the music’s traditional roots than heavily amplified Afrobeat / Afropop, though this softer sound is contemporary, with cutting edge, socially conscious lyrics. The first Acoustic Africa tour, which played the Union Theater in the fall of 2006, featured Malian guitarist Habib Koite plus South Africa’s Vusi “The Voice” Mahlasela and Ivorian dancer / chanteuse newcomer Dobet Gnahore, who was such a hit she was asked back to Madison several times in rapid succession.
The second installment of Acoustic Africa is a guitar-based show, featuring three superstars, Koite, Afel Bocoum and Oliver Mtukudzi, who’ll perform individually and together in varying combinations. Each of these virtuosos brings several backup musicians from his own band to fill out the sound. In addition to backup vocals, percussion and bass, these players add the lute-like West African n’goni, the Malian njarka fiddle, the Zimbabwean m’bira (thumb piano) and other instruments.
Of the three frontmen, Koite’s by far the best known in the States. He’s played with US musicians as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and the avant garde Art Ensemble of Chicago. Koite plays traditional music in non-traditional ways, usually on a nylon string, plugged-in acoustic guitar that he tunes like a kora or n’goni. International flourishes acquired by listening to Jimi Hendrix albums and spending years playing club gigs in cosmopolitan Bamako, Mali’s capital, adorn his multi-ethnic approach to Malian music. Koite’s a griot by birth – “I come from a family of traditional musicians,” he says. “But I went to school – the National Institute of Arts – to study classical guitar. When I started to create a style for myself I learned the regional musics of Mali so I could play for everybody in my country. I wanted to use language and music and scales from the north, from the west, from the Sahel. To you it probably sounds like one style, but Malian people know the regional differences in my songs.”
Afel Bocoum, also the son of musicians and the protégé of his uncle, Ali Farka Toure, the late king of Malian desert blues, has a gentle sound, steeped in the ambience of his ancestral town, Niafunké, in the semi-arid, agrarian Sahel on the Niger river. Of the three stars on this tour Bocoum is the most traditional, though his lyrics address the contemporary social issues of his home turf. In his music the Malian roots of the delta blues come through loud and clear. Compare Bocoum to, say, a recording by Robert Johnson. You can’t miss the echoes of Mali in 1930s Mississippi. (Blogger isn't letting me post YouTube videos today, but you can easily find both of these artists, and in fact, all of the musicians I talk about in this post, on the web).
Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, from Zimbabwe, created his own mix – “Tuku music,” a name his sons came up with – from the sounds of southern Africa. “Borders are created by a handful of divided people with special interests,” he says. “The borders don’t matter. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa – the same tribes live in all those places, and their art overlaps.”
The influences in Tuku music include Zimbabwe’s polyphonic m’bira, chimurenga (Zimbabwean social justice music), the swift Harare beat called jit and South African mbaquanga, itself a mix of Zulu jive, township jazz and Xhosa tribal twists.
Though they have very distinct styles, Koite, Bocoum and Mtukudzi wrote a song together for the tour. It’s based on Malian Mandinga music and Shona sounds from Zimbabwe, and appropriately titled “MaliZim.”
Mtukudzi, who says this is the first time he’s done a project with West African musicians, was delighted to find common musical ground. “What surprised all of us when we wrote ‘MaliZim,’” he says, “was that despite the geographic distance we have rhythmic similarities. We use those similarities in the song, but we also take different rhythms and mix them. If you know what you’re looking for and have a good ear, when you listen to it you can say ‘oh, that’s Mandinga,’ or ‘that’s m’bira,’ but it all comes together very well.”
What’s notable, besides the music, is the determination of these players to live in their home countries when so many African musicians have set up shop in Paris or New York. “Show business in Africa is done poorly,” says Koite. “I completely understand why someone African would want to live in Europe where you can do the gig with a good sound system and get royalties for the albums people buy after your concerts. You can bring money and hope back to Africa without living there. But for me it’s important to stay in my country. I’m really proud and happy that I can bring Malian culture to the world and then come back home. If I can inspire the young people – I want them to ask themselves ‘why does he go and come back?’– if they go on to do the same, we all win. Mali wins. Africa wins.”