Mandela Day African music fest, Brooklyn

Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper with Li’l Kim, Dave Stewart and French first-lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy celebrated Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela‘s 91st birthday July 18 at a heavily reported Radio City Music Hall concert, but in Prospect Park Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé headlined a free five-act, seven-hour pan-African Celebrate Brooklyn! show drawing some 20,000 people. No reviews have been forthcoming, but hey, it was pretty nice, so you should know.


Beside’s Ade’s 13-man African Beats (plus two merrily callypygous female dancers), there were performances by South African pop-soul band Freshly Ground (fronted by singer olani Mahola and electric violinist Kyla-Rose Smith), the somewhat more tradition-minded Mandingo Ambassadors (vocalist Ismail Kouyaté and guitarist Mamady Kouyaté, plus balafon/elect.bass/hand-drums/saxes and reeds) out of Guinea (and they play every Wednesday at Barbés!), Afro-funk diva Abena Koomsom (born in Brooklyn, parents from Ghana), the Egyptian dervish-like dancer Yasser Darwish  and the Senegalese-originating Cheikh M’baye and Sing-Sing Rhythm, starting about 2 pm and ending at 9. Despite the emphasis on percussion and electric gear — guitars, basses, keyboard-synths, even processed flute — used by all the bands except Sing-Sing and Darwish (who was accompanied by a accordionist and side-held hand-drummer), the sounds were mostly mellow. The mood was entirely upbeat; no blues, no protest (as far as I could tell — most of the singing was not in English but communicated across language barriers).

King Sunny’s band was actually somewhat disappointing, as there was little of the multi-guitar slipping-and-sliding that he’d charmed American audiences with upon his first tour of the U.S. in 1982-83. They’re used to playing 12-hour gigs, so maybe the 90-minute set didn’t give them enough time to warm all the way up. Mostly Sunny sang, in nice voice, untranslated long but irregular phrases that his entire troupe harmonized, while talking drums and traps laid down fascinating rhythm. Sunny flashed his handsome smile, plied his easy dance moves, led his men in some gently mocking charades having to do with collecting and dispersing buckets-full of money  – and after being presented with a statuette signaling his induction into the AfroPop Worldwide Hall of Fame, dedicated his set to Michael Jackson. He picked up his own guitar only once, using it as if for punctuation rather than to launch a sinuous jam, as on recordings like Juju Music and Synchro System. This Youtube clip from 2005 offers an idea of what an African Beats song is like:
During the middle of the afternoon South African Consul-General to New York Fikile Maguabane spoke, along with Mandela’s daughter Zindi, calling for Mandela Day to become a internationally recognized holiday of good deeds and actions to heal social wounds. This seems like a fine idea, although it might compete with Bastille Day‘s fireworks recalling the French Revolution and baseball’s All-Star game. Maybe it’s impractical, but what about doing good every day?

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