Africa Fe^te, a celebration of the rich diversity of African music, kicks off a four-week national tour tonight at the Watercourt at California Plaza. The program features a brilliant array of major African artists, including Mali's Salif Keita, Zaire's Papa Wemba, Senegal's Cheikh Lo^ and Somalia's Maryam Mursal.
And the price is right: It's free.
This year's installment of Africa Fe^te is the extension of a series of events that began in Paris in 1978. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, licensed the name for a series of African shows for the United States in 1993. Discontinued two years ago after the series failed to cover its costs, it now returns with powerful sponsorship from, among others, American Express and the Kennedy Center (as part of its African Odyssey program).
In an effort to draw broader audiences, concerts will be free in half of the 16 cities on the tour, with ticket prices in the $15 to $20 range for the rest.
Is African music really such a hard sell in this country? Not necessarily for individual major acts, appearing in well-publicized programs at universities and arts centers. But, with rare exceptions, the astonishingly varied range of African creativity has not yet broken through to the larger American audience.
"I think the problem is that there are a lot of different kinds of music heard in the United States," Wemba says, "but a performer has to be an American, or at least sing in English, to be heard widely. Otherwise, it's more like a fad--a curiosity--and that's all."
Perhaps so, but U.S. audiences, given the opportunity to hear African acts and to participate in the music's celebratory qualities, generally seem captivated--with or without an understanding of the words. And Africa Fe^te includes performers fully capable of pulling their listeners into the music.
One of the most unusual is Mursal, who is making her U.S. debut at 48. Given her history, it's remarkable that she is here at all. Seven years ago Mursal, a much revered artist in her native Somalia, was forced to flee the country during the bloody outbreak of violence.
"After four days of ferocious fighting in Mogadishu," she recalls, "I woke up one morning, after seeing dead bodies in the streets, and realized I had to get out. When the fighting erupted, my husband was in a different part of town, and it would have been suicide for him to try to cross the lines between the different factions. He managed to find a phone line that worked and told me to get out, that he would find me later, which he eventually did, in Denmark."
Mursal and her five children made an epic seven-month journey through the deserts of Somalia, into Ethiopia, down to Kenya, and back to Ethiopia.
"But I had to leave there too," she says, "when another civil war broke out. I took a train to Djibouti, where there are some ethnic Somalis, and that's where I managed, almost by chance, to get a visa to Denmark."
A few months after she arrived, she met musician-producer Soren Jensen, who produced her first American-released album, appropriately titled "The Journey," for Peter Gabriel's Real World label. Her performance tonight will focus on material from the album, with a few traditional songs included to highlight the unusual blending of Arabic, Muslim and African qualities that characterize Mursal's singing.
Keita, a major world music act for two decades, is also one of the most charismatic, a visually compelling albino from Mali with a tenor capable of cutting through the most complex thicket of rhythm.
With no recent album, Keita is using the Africa Fe^te tour to premiere a new ensemble, the Wanda Band, and a new collection of music. It will undoubtedly follow his traditional pattern of layering Western horns and keyboards with the traditional sounds and rhythms of Mali in support of his passionate singing, rich with the primal elements that link expressive rhythm & blues shouters to the praise singing of African griots.
"What is most important to me," Keita says, "is that I communicate with my listeners emotionally."
Lo^, active as a session musician, is just now beginning to emerge as an artist in his own right. Like Wemba and Keita, he was influenced by the Cuban and Latin music that coursed through Africa in the '60s and '70s.
His current album, "Ne La Thiass" (World Circuit/Nonesuch), simmers with traces of rumba mixed with Senegalese mbalax rhythms and occasional unexpected jazz improvisations.
"The music I do," Wemba says, "is a style which is called 'Congolese rumba.' " And, determined to pursue his own path, he again emphasizes the importance of the words.
"My music is not like soukous," he says, "which was really just like disco. That was popular for a while, and now it's finished, because it has nothing to say. And, even with music for young people, like rap, the words are important."
With or without the words, however, Wemba and his group Molokai--whose current self-titled album is on the Real World label--swing with irresistible force. And Wemba's high tenor, a kind of African version of Smokey Robinson, is one of the unique sounds in pop music.
What it all adds up to is one of the summer's great musical bargains: an opportunity to sample, and to experience, some of the world's finest music.
Maryam Mursal, Salif Keita & the Wanda Band, Papa Wemba & Molokai and Cheikh Lo^ play tonight at 6:30 at the Watercourt at California Plaza, 300-350 S. Grand Ave. Free. Parking in the California Plaza garage (accessed from Olive Street between 1st and 4th streets) after 5 p.m., $4.40.