Monday, March 16, 2009

African Soul Rebels - The Anvil, Basingstoke 12th March 2009

Spring has sprung and so once again a young (oh alright then, middle-aged) world music fan's fancy turns to the theoretically incongruous but in practice pretty successful agglomeration of disparate artists that make up the African Soul Rebels concept. This is the fifth year running for the brand that was presumably named for the initial triumvirate of artists billed in 2005 when soulful rappers Daara J (whatever happened to them?) were sandwiched between genuine former gun-toting desert blues rebels Tinariwen and faux rebellion of the leather-trousered variety in Algeria's Rachid Taha. Since then, despite featuring big West African hitters such as Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Femi Kuti, there has been a feeling of diminishing returns about the impact of the set-up. On paper the line-up doubts resurfaced again this year, especially as the recent UK performances of the best know artist, Senegalese singer-songwriter Baaba Maal, were full of eye-catching Lion King antics visually but had a going-through-the-motions air about them musically. Opening act Extra Golden compounded the fears, with a US-Kenyan blues-rock mix that was more barroom than benga. What melody existed tended to be drowned out by the four-square thump of drums and unimaginative indie electric guitar riffing. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps (but not in retrospect, as will become apparent) Baaba Maal was second on the bill, and the contrast could not have been greater. Here was the soul we'd been promised, Baaba in acoustic mode for this tour and sounding sure and strong. Opening with a couple of ballads, then ratcheting up the energy, he promised an African dance party and that was duly delivered with aplomb during a perfectly-paced hour-long set. As soon as Oliver Mtukudzi appeared onstage to jig along with Baaba, it was clear that the line-up order had been set with good reason, and from the moment the veteran Zimbabwean and his band kicked off the sizeable Zimbabwean community that had turned out to see their hero were up shimmying and singing along to every word. Tuku's sunny electro-jit - featuring guitar, marimba, mbira and rumbling bass alongside two syncopated percussionists - can at times be a too-smooth mix on CD, but it all comes together in a sinuous, dance-friendly fashion in concert, Mtukudzi's rough sandpapery vocals dovetailing with sweet female harmonies and his light, undulating lead guitar lines. Approaching sixty tears of age, Tuku is almost ancient by the standards of his native country, blighted as it is by the actions of the tosspot despot Robert Mugabe. And he certainly cuts a skeletal (if encouragingly energetic) figure as he shivers and shakes across the stage. There's no "chimurenga" about this music, no rebellion from a man who has chosen to remain in Africa, just pure, subtly persuasive pop music. And with that, he might just have produced the most consummate set yet of the fifteen that have now appeared under the African Soul Rebel banner.

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