On Sunday, World Music Crash Arts — a nonprofit that brings traditional and contemporary artists from Africa, Asia, Europe and more to the Boston area — presented Acoustic Africa at the Somerville Theater.
More of a musical journey than a group, Acoustic Africa is comprised of three African guitar stars. Habib Koité, the Malian superstar, Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, the best-selling artist in his native Zimbabwe and Afel Bocoum, a guitarist, singer and composer from Mali whose songs evoke the evolution of traditional Malian society.
Playing and singing to a multi ethnic and multi generational crowd, Acoustic Africa performed traditional songs with messages of responsibility, unity and good times. Each took turns singing the lead while intricately weaving together complex melodies and beat patterns with ancient folk tales.
Koité the first ever UNICEF ambassador for Mali sang a tune centuries old that tugged at the heartstrings. The song was about a young woman who wailed about her all consuming love for a man she couldn’t bear to share with another. After the song, Koité tells the audience that he heard it was customary to take four wives in Zimbabwe while glancing at Mtukudzi. Mtukudzi smiled, looked shocked and claimed that men only have one wife.
For more than a decade Koité and his band Bamada have toured all over the world and released a number of critically acclaimed albums from Muso Ko in 1995 (which was later released in the U.S. in 1999) to Afriki in 2007. He’s been featured in Rolling Stone magazine and People and appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Koité comes from a noble line of Khassonké griots, traditional troubadours who provide entertainment at social gatherings and special events. His hits “Fimani” and “Africa” had the crowd swaying and dancing.
Mtukudzi — the most playful and mischievous of the three — started recording in the mid 1970s with the Wagon Wheels. After the Wagon Wheels gained fame in Southern Africa, Mtukudzi formed his own band Black Spirits that backs him up to this day. His music is heavily influenced by chimurenga a genre pioneered by Wagon Wheel member Thomas Mapfumo.
A little bit of South African mbaqanga, the energetic Zimbabwean pop style JIT and the traditional kateke drumming of his clan, the Korekore can all be heard in his songs.
Less talkative but strong in spirit, Bocoum who was bespeckled and covered from head to toe started his music career with his uncle Ali Farka Toure in the group Asco. He founded his own group named Alkibar in the 1980s. Bocoum plays the guitar, composes and sings in Sonrai, his mother tongue, as well as in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg, and in Bambara.
A refreshing departure from the auto-tuned music that rules airwaves here in the West, Acoustic Africa put on an unforgettable performance with Latin influences and banjo-like instrumentation peeking through the chords every so often. Their harmonies and vocal turns spurred joyful clapping and heartfelt sighs of wonder.
A bit more restrained than traditional griots, the talented new world music artists played lots of crowd favorites like Neria and Cigarette Abana. One of the most memorable tunes was what they called MaliZim.
“The song we’re about to play, some say it’s from Mali and some say it’s from Zimbabwe. Mali and Zimbabwe are like Massachusetts and Connecticut. It’s very far apart. You have to fly from one place to another. But through music we grow close, close,” explained Koité.
Mtukudzi nodded his head in agreement and said just before they united in song, “Yes, through music. We are not just neighbors, we are one.”
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