As the sun set on this town's riverfront band shell last Friday, Somalian star Maryam Mursal swayed across the stage, singing of her native country's heartbreaks, using both old and new sounds: the traditional Somali oud (a lute-like instrument) partnered with heavy electronic amplification and disco-like drum rhythms. It was an eclectic mix echoed by the other three groups that constitute Africa Fte '98, a group now making its way across the United States.
An enthusiastic, though small, crowd gyrated on the grass in front of the vibrantly costumed band while others milled through African masks and spears in the booths of the cultural bazaar that accompanies the groups. The blanket-strewn grass amphitheater on the Feather River was a perfect setting for the dance-to-me rhythms shared by all four groups.
The tour, which kicked off June 19 in Los Angeles, began some 20 years ago as a European showcase for African music. It was resurrected in 1993 by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, who licensed the name and brought a similar show to the US. It faltered financially after three years and has only returned in its current form as a result of underwriting from the record label, Real World, American Express (with a $2 million grant), and the Kennedy Center African Odyssey program.
Africa Fte now showcases some of the most beloved singers on the continent: Mursal, who began her career 30 years ago in Somalia, a country that forbade women to perform publicly; Papa Wemba, an internationally known artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo; Salif Keita, a performer in his native Mali; and newcomer Senegalese Cheikh L.
Opening up the audience's ears to African music is certainly the hope of both Mursal and Wemba's record label, Real World. Warren Smith, producer of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, says now is the time for African music. "It's at the cutting edge, combining mainstream musical sounds with traditional instruments and influences," he observes.
RhythmMusic magazine co-founder Jonathan Shulman points out that 10 years ago major record chains relegated world music to tiny back-of-the store sections, if they had them at all. Today, "they have huge selections," and they're often at the front, with artists from all over the globe prominently featured.
Mr. Shulman agrees that this is the right time for an Africa Fte tour. "The American music scene has been saturated [with ideas]," he explains, adding "people are looking for something new, and they're turning to other traditions and cultures." His magazine now features a new country and artist every month.
In a backstage interview, Mursal says (through the translation of her Danish manager, Sren Kjr Jensen) that she has dreamed of coming to the US ever since she was a young girl listening to American pop icons such as Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.
"But I think that now is the perfect time. Americans are ready to hear all the wonderful rhythms of African music."
Jensen joined Mursal's band and became her manager when the singer sought refuge in Denmark after fleeing Somalia's 1991 civil war.
He says that Mursal and her group have been intrigued by how cultures have merged yet stayed distinct in the US.
"We see that certain groups respond to different elements we use in our music," he observes, adding that while some like the drums and heavy rhythms, others come alive during the softer, less-Western interludes.
The tour's aim is primarily cultural and certainly financial. For performers whose homelands are frequently drenched in strife this opportunity to speak to America is also political.
Says Mursal, who has assumed the role of speaking for her people who she believes have been deprived of both a rightful government and a voice, "I would like to apologize for what happened to American soldiers in my country. The people who run my country now are bandits. They are not the voice of the people."
Echoing Mursal's sentiments, festival producer Warren Smith hopes that Africa Fte will show that African countries who are known only for their political turmoil can also produce "beautiful and wonderfully danceable music as well."
* For tour dates and artist information, check out Africa Fte's official Web site: www.africafte.com