A Taste of the Mafrika Festival
Year after year, the Mafrika Festival just gets better and better. The annual daylong, outdoor world music concert takes place at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Today’s surprisingly oldschool weather (low heat and humidity – who would have thought?) made it even easier to stick around for a bunch of excellent, eclectic bands.
The first real band to take the stage after one in the afternoon was Super Hi-Fi, led by Aphrodesia bassist Ezra Gale. With two trombones, guitar, bass and drums, they moved from edgy, minor-key roots reggae to hypnotic, rhythmically tricky Afrobeat to a little straight-up rock and then back again. The early part of the set was the reggae section, the trombones creating a terse, incisive live dub ambience, guitar going off on a surprising noiserock tangent in places. Later on they picked up the pace: one of the later songs went deep into jazzy territory as the trombones diverged, shadowed each other just a fraction of a beat apart and finally converged as they pulled it back into a reggae groove. Then they did a bouncy tribute to minivans, the most popular way to get around in West Africa.
Three-piece punk band the Band Droidz followed: “Harlem born and raised,” the frontman/guitarist proudly told the rapidly expanding crowd. They were excellent. The early part of the set was straight-up, catchy punk rock, the guitarist’s soulful voice too low in the mix for the lyrics to cut through: a band whose tunes and playing are this smart usually has good lyrics, and it was obvious from their interaction with the audience that they’re on the conscious tip. They proved just as good at roots reggae as they are at punk, then midway through the set, they went for more of an indie metal feel. One of the songs sounding like an update on 19th Nervous Breakdown; another used a tune much like the Velvets’ Lady Godiva’s Operation as the launching pad for a long, psychedelic, bone-bleaching guitar solo. The Band Droidz are at SOB’s on the 12th at around 9, and then playing a free in-studio show at Ultrasound, 251 W 30th St. on the 7th floor on 7/16 at 9.
Ivoirien roots reggae star Sekouba a.k.a. Sekouba Diakite and his eleven-piece backing band were next, and were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the afternoon. Delivering his songs in his native land’s dialects, he and the band – two guitars, two percussionists, keyboards, bass, drums and backup singers – stretched the songs out into epics, with frequent hypnotic percussion breaks. He’s a charismatic performer with a genuine social awareness: he doesn’t just give lip service to issues like immigrant rights and world peace. Midway through the set, he did a couple of love songs, one with a catchy yet ornate Marleyesque vibe, another as a duet with one of the women singing harmonies. When the keyboards finally came up in the mix, the anthemic sweep of the songs really took off, as towering as anything Tiken Jah Fakoly or Alpha Blondy ever did.
Psychedelic funk/Afrobeat band the People’s Champs have an excellent new album out (recently reviewed here): onstage, they proved even more eclectic, switching from one groove to another throughout their long, slinky songs. With Super Hi-Fi’s brass section (one of the trombonists switching to trumpet) out in front of bass, drums and keys and their frontwoman’s gritty, edgy vocals, they started out with Afrobeat, then took it down with a mysterious, broodingly psychedelic mini-epic, then brought it back up again with a jaunty vintage 70s soul/funk feel. By now, the space in front of the stage had become a multigenerational dancefloor, a couple of little kids climbing up on the stage to show off their moves (something that would never be allowed at, say, Central Park Summerstage).
Next on the bill was kora (West African harp) virtuoso Yacouba Diabate. How well would his spikily hypnotic, methodically crescendoing one-chord vamps go over with this party crowd? Everybody listened. And as the songs went on, the volume picked up. Backed by bass, drums, djembe and a bongo player who added echoey machine-gun sonics, Diabate methodically brought the volume up and then dipped down again. The best song of the set, in fact one of the best of the afternoon, was a plaintive minor-key number with Middle Eastern allusions, the percussion backing away and letting Diabate’s haunting melodies ring out. By the time they’d finished, it was after five, and the sun had finally come out of hiding from behind the clouds. As tempting as the rest of the bill looked, this meant for us that it was time to grab some some spicy, homemade lamb stew from one of the vendors and then find out what kind of torture the subway had in store.
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