The influence of Africa and its culture are everywhere you look. Look no further than the World Music Institute’s second annual Africa Now! Festival. The four-day event—featuring panels, film screenings and performances celebrating the best of African music—took place chiefly at the fabled Apollo Theater.
Currently in the midst of its 80th anniversary, Harlem’s hallowed destination for Black music lovers to see their favorite acts (from Moms Mabley and Billy Eckstine to Janelle Monáe and Esperanza Spalding) sports a clientele a lot different from its golden days. On the night of Africa Now! Festival’s main show, the Apollo seats were filled with people of all manner of skin hues and backgrounds. Those familiar with the theater’s history may have been stunned to see so many White faces in the crowd, but gentrification being what it’s been in New York City lately (and Harlem especially), it’s not as surprising as it sounds.
In fact, that evening it turned out to be a blessing.
The performers took the multicultural crowd on a musical excursion through Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone is a span of less than three hours, showcasing the origins of music familiar to those who might not know African culture. It can’t be stated enough that all music is a derivative of the melodies and rhythms that originated from the Motherland.
The first performer was Fatoumata Diawara. The Malian songstress arrived on stage with her three-piece band and a pristine orange Gibson guitar around her neck. It didn’t take but one strum of said guitar before folks were standing in the aisles moving their legs and hips. For 45 minutes, she played flowing, head-nodding music that clearly had its influence on jazz and funk.
Rhythm guitarist John Lee played robust Afrobeat riffs over drummer Tosin Aribisala’s hi-hat heavy ticks, as Diawara sang with poise and purpose, writing in the Wassoulou tradition by creating political and empowering songs. “Unite” was a cry for peace for all the children in the world, regardless of color. “Bisa” dealt with her displeasure over the tradition of arranged marriages in Mali.
Diawara had everyone out of their seats before long, prompting her to take off her headwrap and dance. She ended her six-song set by twirling for what seemed like forever. She was a typhoon of talent that swept up everyone in the Apollo.
Next after her was Les Frères Guisse, a Senegalese trio of brothers on acoustic guitar, bass and percussion, respectively. Throughout their eight songs, they let everyone know that the music they do is “the father of blues.” It was easy to understand once you heard brother Dijiby’s licks on the guitar. His twain seesawed from joy to lament and back again, recalling the licks of blues ambassadors like B. B. King and Albert King.
Brother Aliou held court on percussion with three conga drums, a kick and a crash. Whether using his bare hands or a stick, Aliou hypnotized the crowd into standing, dancing and shaking. Les Frères Guisse ended their set with a beautiful tribute to Nelson Mandela: “You were the sky, you were the moon/You were the sun of our lives,” they sang.
Ending the show on a high note was the world renowned Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. The lively sextet showed the crowd where the roots of reggae really came from. From the start, they showed the Apollo a “biggie, biggie time” with some infectious riddim. While they were in a jovial mood during every song, it was important from them to exclaim in song that “being a refugee is not easy,” to let folks know the hardships of being a stranger in a strange land (something descendants of Africa know all too well).
Soon, the Refugee All-Stars were joined by guest percussionists Jeff Drekter (Dun Dun) and William Noel (Djembe). Refugee percussionist Jeffrey Kamara began dancing center stage. Kamara was soon joined by bassist Dennis Sannoh, who simultaneously skanked up a storm playing a funky bottom behind his back! Meanwhile, lead vocalist Reuben Koroma was a quietly dynamic front man, singing, moving and playing congas with equal expertise.
The Apollo audience walked away entertained and enriched by the music of Africa, and educated on its global reach.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.