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  • Africa Live: The Roll Back Malaria Concert
  • Michael Ashenfelder
Africa Live: The Roll Back Malaria Concert. DVD. Directed by Mick Csáky. Paris: Idéale Audience International, 2005. DVD9M19. $24.99.

In 2005, Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour helped organize a concert in Dakar, Senegal, to generate support in the fight against malaria, a disease that continues to plague much of Africa. The Roll Back Malaria concert showcased some of the finest musicians in Northwest Africa, performing in a wonderful—if small—cross section of musical styles from the vast African continent.

Some common elements in all the performances were multiple percussionists (this being Africa, after all), and an aural fabric of ostinatos, usually played by one or more electric guitars. Otherwise the styles ran the gamut from ancient tribal to urban hip-hop.

Malian musicians seem to craft the most artful blend of traditional and modern styles, particularly Oumou Sangare, Salif [End Page 685] Keita, and the group, Tinariwen. Oumou Sangare's band combines electric stringed instruments with djembes (hand drums), the harp-like kora, a single-string fiddle, a Western metal flute, and three backup singers who play large, beaded shekere-type wooden bowls as they sing and dance. Ms. Sangare's upbeat, high-energy song, "Tienadjan" lopes casually over a string ostinato as the backup singers shake and toss their beaded bowls in a synchronized performance of both dance and percussion.

Salif Keita is striking for many reasons. He is an albino with a powerful voice, a passionate Islamic spirituality, and an inspired sense of delivery. Over a spacious, pensive, trance-like groove he sings "Mandjou" like a call to prayer. His band includes the kora and balafon (marimba), along with a variety of percussionists, with an occasional synthesizer punch thrown in for punctuation and drama.

The group Tinariwen is billed as "Touareg," which is more an ethnic group than a place. Watching Tinariwen perform brings to mind scenes from composer/ author Paul Bowles' novel Under the Sheltering Sky; it is a peek into a faraway, exotic culture. The band members are striking in their desert headgear but equally striking because of their instrumentation, which is comprised mostly of electric guitars. Their droning tribal sound has a clear pulse and rhythm, but the overall feel of the music is deliciously foreign to Western ears.

Most of the Roll Back Malaria concert bands play in a more modern pop style. Senegalese artists tend to perform in the mbalax genre, which is intensely polyrhythmic and dynamic.

Orchestra Baobab, from Senegal, has a typical lineup that includes two saxophones and several guitars. The music is catchy, three-chord pop with vaguely Western funk overtones. Percussionists and guitarists play interlocking riffs and ostinatos, constructing irresistible dance grooves out of dense polyrhythms.

The Nigerian singer/saxophonist Seun Anikulapo Kuti, son of Nigerian musical legend, Fela Kuti, fronts a large band consisting of five horns and the usual rhythm section of guitars and percussionists. His horn-driven sound provides a rich backup for his guest soloist, saxophonist Manu Dibango from Cameroon, who plays some burning, authoritative jazz. Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who is solidly from the Max Roach school of understated bebop drumming, augments Mr. Dibango's set.

On a bonus section of the DVD, Mr. Dibango plays his hit song, Soul Makossa. In a fascinating example of how international cultures continue to cross-pollinate, Dibango channels African American soul legend James Brown as he repeatedly yells over a tight, funky groove, "Can I get to the bridge?" to his band, to which they all respond "Yeah" in bit of extended call and response before they finally all hit the bridge together.

Afropop star Baaba Maal, from Senegal, performs Mbaye, a moving song of inspiration and spirituality. His big band, too, melds traditional and modern instruments, and the song features a talking drum player who solos front and center, embellishing Maal's vocals. Mr. Maal tears up the crowd with a rousing, high-energy finish.

Angélique Kidjo from Benin sings the tender ballad, Malaika (Angel) to the spare accompaniment of a solo, fingerpicked electric guitar. The effect is haunting as her rich voice echos airily into the night over the...


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