“Acoustic Africa” featuring Haibib Koite, Oliver Mtikudzi and Afel Boucoum
BB King Blues Club
Wednesday, April 6
Better than: Buying a plane ticket to Mali.
Western listeners (that’s us, if you were wondering) often need comparisons to dig deeper into “world music.” If that’s what it takes, Wednesday night’s sparkling “Acoustic Africa” show at BB King’s–featuring African guitar superstars Haibib Koite, Afel Boucom (both from Mali), and Oliver Mtikudzi (from Zimbabwe)–was like watching Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan and Paul Simon picking out each other’s tunes on the same stage. Oh, and since name-dropping doesn’t hurt: Boucoum was the guy on Damon Albarn’s album Mali Music.
Fine, but incomplete. Because while each of the performers may be a superstar in some part of the world–Koite, the nominal headliner, is perhaps the best known, but Mtikudzi (known as “Tuku”) is the biggest-selling Zimbabwean artist ever, and aside from playing with a rock star Boucom is also the nephew of Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Toure–this pairing was far more unlikely and inspired than the superstar summit idea implies.
For starters, Mali and Zimbabwe are in many ways as far apart musically as they are geographically. Zimbabwean music ecstatically layers relentless 12/8 rhythms–four-on-the-floor beats with triplets on top–and tightly interwoven guitar parts adapted from mbira (thumb piano) patterns. Malian music is more stately, with blues-like pentatonic melodies and rhythms that are just as likely to inspire a deep trance as they are dancing. As Koite told the rapt audience about halfway through the night, “Mali and Zimbabwe are like Seattle… and Cuba!”
All of which made the effortless way the musicians segued among styles more impressive. The three musicians shared a band and played on each other’s songs instead of playing three separate sets, and the set gathered steam as it went along.
Playing for a crowd with plenty of African faces (in New York, after all, everyone gets a hometown crowd), the three traded songs and moments ranging from Tuku’s gorgeous “Nerein,” with his soulful voice accompanied by just guitar and mbira, to Boucoum’s “desert blues” songs, which at one point saw him dance the traditional northern Mali takamba in his flowing desert robes as Koite picked away accompanying him. The virtuosic backing band–which incorporated a Malian violin, a bass lute and an extra guitar or two–kept things humming as the three leaders combined on billowy vocal harmonies and chiming, interlocking guitar parts. Koite’s agile and distinctive nylon-stringed guitar soloing often floated above, but despite so many guitars playing at once, this thankfully wasn’t a wankfest. It added up to a heavier, edgier sound than you might expect.
The highlight was the second to last song, “Malizim,” which Tuku and Koite noted was written for this tour as a way to bridge the different styles of Mali and Zimbabwe. Philip Tzikirai’s gently plucked mbira gave way to churning guitars, and as the song picked up and the three singers traded verses the band was greeted by audience members climbing on stage, throwing money at their feet, and showing off their African dance moves. Which probably hasn’t happened at many other superstar summit concerts lately–another reason the comparison thing doesn’t quite cut it for a show as rich in fireworks as this one.
Critical Bias: Will take an African guitar solo over a Kanye West opus any day.
Overheard: One 40something African man shaking his head and saying, “What a rock star! What a rock star!”
Random Notebook Dump: Tuku’s advice to budding rockers: “A song on its own won’t make a show.”