Reggae Sunsplash

Skyline Stage, June 27

Africa Fete

Skyline Stage, June 28

The rhythms of Africa run through reggae, but now reggae and African music appear to be heading in opposite directions. While reggae edges closer to commercial pop, African music still draws on such traditions as drumming and chanting–the roots of its sound. The difference was apparent at the recent Reggae Sunsplash and Africa Fete concerts.

After a string of bands playing nondescript reggae, Sunsplash headliner Aswad took the stage in a burst of soaring vocals and gliding rhythms. The trio captured the audience at the start with a rendition of Toots and the Maytals’ “54-46 That’s My Number.” Slick yet soulful, Aswad performed their newer hits, like “Shine” and “Don’t Turn Around,” and sent up R & B classics like the Temptations’ “My Girl” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.'” But Aswad didn’t reveal their deep, emotional side until they returned to their old songs, like “African Children” and “On & On.”

Aswad was the first London-based reggae band to tour with legends Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and Bunny Wailer. The band had a fresh blend of three-part harmonies, kicking horn riffs, and political lyrics about London life. With songs like “Back to Africa” and “Set Them Free” they declared themselves a “roots and culture” band, combining African rhythms and uplifting lyrics that carry a message. After a series of successful albums Aswad began experimenting with different sounds, incorporating bits of funk, dub, and, later, dancehall. The band had several slow-paced “lovers rock” hits–romantic themes with subdued beats–but in 1988 their music took a sharp turn. “Don’t Turn Around,” a simpering pop/reggae tune, brought the trio international attention and topped Britain’s national charts. From that point Aswad, like many reggae acts, have churned out stylish, pop-influenced songs aimed at cracking the American charts. It’s not that music created with crowd-pleasing in mind is necessarily bad, but the farther reggae performers go from the music’s roots, the blander and less powerful it sounds.

Contemporary reggae draws from many sources: African rhythms, R & B harmonies, rock melodies. But the emphasis on wider crossover appeal drains reggae of the raw emotion that originally distinguished it, and dilutes rather than capitalizes on the sounds of different genres. Too many of the Sunsplash performers–Grammy-nominated Wailing Souls, crooner Freddie McGregor, and newcomers Christafari–seemed to be haunted by pop-hit dreams, offering not too slow, not too bass-heavy beats, along with nice, clean, not too soulful singing. It all blended together like one never-ending top 40 pop/schlock hit. The female quartet Worl-a-Girl stood out because their crystalline harmonies and exuberant singing carried reminders of the moving, spirit-filled reggae tradition–from a sizzling dancehall cover of En Vogue’s “Hold On” to a stunning doo-wop treatment of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.”

African music–visible for the first time on American charts–is tackling crossover from the opposite direction. Performers like Youssou N’ Dour, Thomas Mapfumo, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have increased the commercial viability of groups across the African continent. For the most part they’ve responded not by copying pop music, but by retaining their musical tradition, reinterpreting it for a wider audience.

Africa Fete headliner Baaba Maal leads the way. Strolling onto the stage in a traditional Senegalese white caftan, he launched into “Sidiki,” a European club hit that honors the famous griot family of his bass player. The tune exploded with fast-paced drumming and a whirling Afrobeat, the mix of African rhythms fused with jazz and soul. His voice soaring effortlessly, Maal sang mostly songs from his current album Firin’ in Fouta, including “Gorel,” a song that combines African folk arrangements with electric keyboards, and “African Woman,” which has a horn-driven groove. Baaba Maal’s blend of ancient Senegalese folk music and contemporary arrangements has won once-elusive Western acclaim. But, like all the artists in Africa Fete, he did it by staying true to the music and not diminishing its power with pop treatments.

Oumou Sangare sings in the tradition of the hunters of the Wassolou region of Mali but with revolutionary twists, modernizing the sound by adding bass guitar to the traditional kamelengoni, or youth harp, and lyrics that boldly call for women’s equality in her primarily Islamic country. Sangare has already topped West African and European world-music charts, and she seems poised to do the same here–without changing a note.

Femi Kuti bears the huge weight of being the son of Fela, one of Africa’s most famous and controversial musicians. In the 70s Fela introduced the West to Afrobeat, so Femi Kuti has had to play in the shadow of a great man. Rather than rebel, Kuti traffics in a sax-drenched sound that obviously draws from the same traditions his father came from, but Kuti’s giving it a new interpretation.

Backed by a six-piece horn section and driving percussion, Kuti gave his father’s Afrobeat sound his own funkier, hyperactive feel. Fela would have played one or two songs in an hour, but his son jumped through five tunes, with a vibrant sax in the lead. It was the epitome of honoring older values by melding them with modern tastes to form a new ideal–an effective method for expanding an audience without sacrificing the original sound that defined a particular genre.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/David Kamba.