Since 1993, minus a 199697 hiatus, the
annual summer Africa Fete has provided a dependable— if formulaic— showcase for the unfor- tunately dwindling number of African artists with tour-justifying American releases. Sponsored by afrosario Chris Blackwell (with the help of American Express), the fete is
always headlined by a Blackwell act— Baaba Maal this year and last— joined by a couple of intriguing if less-familiar openers.
The good news last Saturday was that Zimbabwe’s most popular musician, Oliver Mtukudzi, and his Black Spirits band were making their American debut in front of a maxed-out
SummerStage audience. The bad news was that it had taken them some 20 years and 40 albums to do so. Mtukudzi has successfully grafted traditional Shona thumb-piano riffs onto sweet-and-sour pop songs. Light-fingered acoustic guitar lines and deft jit drumming nicely offset his gruff r&b voice. Tuku Music (Putumayo), his first American release, heard in much the same form onstage, is mellow Afrofolk that deals frankly with such social issues as child abuse and AIDS (to which Mtukudzi has lost four band members during the past five years).
The other good news was blues scholar Taj Mahal bringing the same sort of front-porch insouciance to the stage that he did to the recording of Kulanjan (Hannibal). The bad (and unannounced) news was that his collaborator Toumani Diabate didn’t make it to New York on time. That didn’t stop Taj, who faked it pretty well— in spite of an embarrassing sound mix— alongside the rest of the group. Their strategy was that of superimposition, with Taj singing chestnuts like “Ol’ Georgie Buck” and “Catfish Blues” to Ramatou Diakite’s head-clearing Wassoulou vocals, and rehearsal-free kora, balaphon (gourd marimba), and ngoni (lute) accompaniment. The best news, though, was that Baaba Maal and his band, Daande Lenol, were at their explosive, rainmaking best. If there’s a recipe to their rhythmic complexity, I haven’t cracked it. I’ll return as often as they do. —Richard Gehr
Rage Against the Regime
Cui Jian Brings Music to the Masses
“I can’t believe this is New York,” Cui Jian shouted as he faced the masses at SummerStage two weekends ago. “It looks like Beijing.” Sure enough, Chinese fans showed up by the hundreds at Central Park to see their favorite aging rocker on his third U.S. tour since 1995. Five days later, the 38-year-old musician—
China’s first and biggest rock star— seemed comparatively unfazed by the Asian majority at the Bowery Ballroom, where day-of tickets went for $35— over half the monthly salary of the average worker in China.
Sporting old Nikes, a pink and red flower-print sport jacket, and a pale yellow guitar, Cui Jian (pronounced “Tsway-Jenn”) opened Friday’s show with peculiarly effective punk- and hip-hop-influenced songs featuring drummer Bei Bei, who deftly manipulated the awkward four-tones of Mandarin into a forceful rap. Cui, often criticized and censored by his homeland’s cultural wardens, continued to reveal the scope of his sound with jazz, country rock, and even an unlikely incorporation of ska.
When the raspy-voiced singer, who spoke in Chinese and halting English, dedicated the rock ballad “Tsu Zho” (“Stepping Out”) to the “liu” (or overseas) students living in the U.S., many in the audience sang along word-for-word with rather moving religious zeal. At the show’s climax, Cui donned a crimson blindfold for “A Piece of Red Cloth,” his most damning attack on communist oppression. After similar performances a decade ago, the Chinese government canceled his tour. When he sang his Tiananmen Square anthem, “Nothing to My Name,” a handful of listeners waved glowing cigarette lighters. One bespectacled thirtysomething man held up his Star Wars glow-in-the-dark plastic saber. And suddenly, the irony kicked in: This isn’t Beijing. —Claudine Ko
The Last Talent Scout
Erv Raible Moves to the Firebird
Nightclub enthusiast and sedulous talent scout Erv Raible took over the Duplex, one of the Village’s fabled venues, in November 1978. Then came Brandy’s and still-throbbing Don’t Tell Mama. Through late May 1999— when he closed his most recent club, Eighty Eight’s— he estimates he’s presented something like 4000 performers (10 percent of whom he reckons were first-rate— including Karen Mason,
Nancy LaMott, and David Campbell, who “had ‘star’ smeared all over him”). The figure would seem to contradict the assumption that cabaret is doddering. Or as Raible says, “Cabaret is one of the most consistent things we have in entertainment. It’s always there in some form.”
Now that Raible has been named entertainment director at the FireBird Cafe, he’s about to start on his second 4000. Confident that in this recently established room he can continue contributing to the art form, Raible insists he’s grown tired of singers who swing into “the same goddamn 50 songs— Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Sondheim, and occasionally throw in Noël Coward.” Although he’ll still showcase the likes of Steve Ross and Charles Cermele, who proudly sing the Great American Songbook, he’ll also back entertainers immersing themselves in more contemporary “pop” sounds. His booking policy will mix headliners doing three to six shows a week with “tried-and-true new faces— well, say ‘newer’ faces” in theme nights such as “Broadway Moonlighters.” Think of it as Eighty Eight’s goes uptown. —David Finkle