The OKAY Africa showcase closed out CMJ with a bang for those who managed to cram into the Knitting Factory Saturday night: A sold-out lineup of African all-stars took the stage in a heartfelt tribute to their homeland, tinged with sadness (and political anger) but still more of a celebration than anything else. Sierra Leone’s Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, Ghana’s always-political Blitz the Ambassador, Rwanda’s Iyadede, and Brooklyn hip-hoppers Jahdan Blakkamoore & Matt Shadetek were backed by the equally impressive Embassy Ensemble, featuring a choreographed brass section, a cool-guy guitarist, bongos, and a drummer who looked like he just finished a gig with his ska band.
The Ensemble were flaunting their moves (right, left, down, up) when we arrived, battling our way toward the stage to get a closer look, which involved weaving around dreadlocked men and hair-wrapped girls who’d taken to an off-rhythm, zoned-out interpretative dance we couldn’t stop watching. (A public apology to the dude whose foot I stepped on. To be fair, you weren’t wearing shoes.) Onstage, Blitz the Ambassador was already preaching on the evils of programmed radio–“The same radio we love, we let poison our kids”–as he launched into a heated performance of the appropriately titled “Kill the Radio.” Minutes later, the Knitting Factory was still chanting that song’s title as a man wearing a boom-box on his head danced into the audience, backed by a jazzy trumpet interlude and finishing with a dramatic, slow-motion collapse onstage. “This is awesome!” someone shouted. “This is awesome!” her friend replied. “And weird!”
Sahr Ngaujah (one star of the new Fela Kuti musical, Fela!) introduced the headliners: Sierra Leone superstars Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew. They sang an acoustic remembrance of their country (arms raised in the air, heads bowed) to a respectfully quiet audience: A beautiful chorus of “Sweet sweet Salone/Across the borders we sing your song/You are my mother, forever home” rang over the now eerily somber room; “Tell me how you feel/When the blood has spilled,” they cried during a remarkably upbeat “Soldier.” Each song was an energetic and hopeful dance jam with lyrics that would make you cry in any other setting. Bajah told stories about losing loved ones and continuing the search in “Love of My Life,” and encouraging everyone to “Tell Somebody That You Love Somebody,” as one song put it.
Their performance was briefly, happily “interrupted” by none other than Ahmed Janka Nabay, who looked like he’d teleported from the African outback with a straw skirt and colorful crocheted shirt and headband. The famous Sierra Leonean — dubbed the father of bubu, a lovely mashup of rusty-sounding keyboards and pipes — explained how his music was stolen by hateful forces in his country, and how he’s now reclaimed it to further the ideals of peace. The night peaked with the Dry Eye Crew pulling audience members onstage to do the “Jacky Jacky” — a frat dude flailed about, two young girls battled each other, Ngaujahthe provided some fancy footwork, and those who couldn’t do the step (right, left, right shake shake) were content to jump up and down. The chorus of “We make you dance in the clubs like a rock star!” followed us out the door of what may have been the best show of CMJ 2009.