The A-Team

Africa Fete, a tour of Africa's biggest pop stars, becomes the biggest musical bargain in America.


Jonathan Curiel
June 24, 1998 4:13PM (UTC)

Almost two hours after her set was over, Maryam Mursal danced in the
stands with friends from Somalia, clapping and yelling as Papa Wemba launched
into his pop hit, "Show Me the Way.'' The moment was magical, capturing the
raw intensity of Africa Fete '98, the tour of African musicians that is back
in the United States after a two-year hiatus.

"I'm happy,'' said Mursal that night in Saratoga, Calif. "This is good
... African music is for everyone.''

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The organizers of Africa Fete hope the tour is a breakthrough for Mursal
and its other headliners (Wemba, Salif Keita and Cheikh Lt), all of whom are
stars in world-music circles yet still lack the crossover cachet in the United
States. To expand the audience for African pop music, Island Records is willing to lose money sponsoring Africa Fete '98, just as it did from 1993 to 1995, when it lost more than $1 million
staging the tour in the United States. This time, though, the John F. Kennedy Center is
involved, as is American Express, which has chipped in $2 million to help the Kennedy Center fund Africa Fete for the next four years. The money has produced the biggest musical bargain in America: At half the stops on Africa Fete '98, the concert is free, just as it was on opening
night in Los Angeles, when 7,000 people crowded into California Plaza. Three
days later, on June 21 in Saratoga, the audience numbered only 1,000, but
tickets for that stop were as high as $30, and there was little publicity for
it -- an oddity of this year's tour, which is relying on word of mouth and
media exposure to draw in fans. College and public radio stations have
embraced Africa Fete; commercial radio and television have virtually ignored
the tour.

"[Commercial] radio and television are not receptive to it because they
[the Africa Fete artists] don't sing in English,'' says Karen Yee, vice
president of artist development at Island Records.

There is also little commercial incentive. Despite their fame and
success in Africa and Europe, none of this year's Africa Fete artists has
had a bestselling album in the United States. Keita doesn't even have a
recording contract anymore. (Island Records didn't renew his contract after it
ran out recently.) "None of the artists on this tour have sold more than 35,000
copies [of an individual album] in the United States,'' says Yee. "With
this tour, we want to prove we can bring in an audience.''

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One way to attract more people in the United States is for the artists to
incorporate more English in their songs (as Wemba did on "Emotion,'' his 1995
Real World album) -- or to incorporate a more American sound. Whether he's
conscious of this or not, Keita is performing with a new band that features
American guitarists -- guitarists who give his music a heavy, rock-oriented
feel.

Fortunately for Keita, the combination works. On his new song "Abede,''
Keita's soaring voice carries an emotional weight that -- enlivened by guitar
and the kora of Toumani Diabete -- comes through even if the audience can't
understand French or Bamana. At the end of the concert in Saratoga, Keita had
many in the crowd dancing onstage with him. So many people hopped onstage to dance that Keita, Diabete and other members of the Wanda Band were completely obscured by the flailing arms and legs. Somewhere in there was Keita, singing without
interruption, even when his fans tried to take his hand and dance with him.
He closed the concert with a two-song encore, four hours after Mursal
opened it with songs from her new solo album, "The Journey.''

Mursal is the most intriguing artist of Africa Fete '98, because her
story and her voice are so compelling, and because she is new to international
touring. In 1991, she fled the war in Somalia, leaving Mogadishu on foot with
her five children and crisscrossing the horn of Africa for seven months. Eventually, Mursal and her family received asylum from the Danish embassy in Djibouti. In Denmark, Mursal
was "discovered" in a camp for Somali refugees when Danish musician-producer
Soren Jensen happened to be there and heard her sing. Jensen recognized
Mursal's music from a visit he took to Somalia in 1986. "The Journey," which
Jensen produced for Real World, is a studio mix of songs that are deeply
personal for Mursal. On "Somalia Udida Ceb," Mursal laments the state of her
homeland.

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"The first good thing I hear about my country, the first suggestion that
it is changing, and I will go back -- and quickly,'' Mursal says. "It might
take five years or even 10 years, but one day things will change.''

Mursal's enthusiasm is infectious. Her voice is stunning. The influence
of Arabic and her Muslim faith are clearly audible in her music. Mursal gives
Africa Fete '98 a nice balance and is a visible reminder that African pop
music is not limited to West Africa -- the long-standing source of most of the
continent's pop music that is played on U.S. radio stations.

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"One of the things I suggested to Karen Yee was that, for our purposes,
it was really important that all the performers don't come out of West
Africa,'' says Alicia Adams, director of special programming for the Kennedy
Center. "We wanted to focus on Africa on a continentwide basis.''

Africa Fete was started in 1978 by Mamadou Konte, an expatriate
Senegalese worker living in Paris who wanted to create more awareness of
African music and culture and, at the same time, raise money for
charitable causes. The event has taken place every year in Paris since then.
Five years ago in the United States, Island Records picked up Africa Fete, then dropped it when the financial losses were too great.

Seeing Mursal, Keita, Lt and Wemba on the same bill is an unforgettable
experience. The only disappointment is the synthesized music that Mursal
incorporates into her songs. She performs with a Danish group of four that
uses prerecorded tracks from "The Journey.'' Listening to prerecorded music
while Mursal sings so intensely is off-putting. But Mursal was still impressive, and the
performances by Wemba, Lt and Keita were riveting. Each of these artists is a headliner; together, they form an African Dream Team, reminding American audiences of the tremendous potential for African pop music. The day may come when these musicians are afforded the same respect in the marketplace that they demand onstage.

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Jonathan Curiel

Jonathan Curiel writes about world music for the San Francisco Chronicle.

MORE FROM Jonathan Curiel


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