Thursday, January 17, 2013

Festival: Afrofest 2011 (Sunday)

Afrofest 2011 (feat. Tich Maredza Band / Ijo Vudu / Ruth Mathiang and Waleed Kush / JP Buse / Dizu Plaatjies / Thomas Mapfumo)

Queen's Park. Sunday, July 10, 2011.

On the festival's second and final day, there were looming clouds overhead, the threat of rain turning the park into a humid sweatbox with just enough of a pleasing breeze to take the edge off. That wouldn't keep the crowds away, of course, but as usual, for the earlier acts you had to look beyond the open area in front of the stage to see just how many people were taking part.

I arrived just in time to see the Tich Maredza Band taking the stage. This unit evolved from Maredza's former band Masaisai, shifting from their mbira-based traditionalism to a more streamlined sound focusing on his own compositions. In fact, he started off on a gentle singer-songwriter note — recalling his idol Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi — in order to "give you some time to breathe" before ramping things up with more of a dance vibe.

Maredza would lead by example there, teaching the crowd how to say "dance" in Shona, and then busting out some moves, including his racehorse dance, which got the crowd's approval as the band showed off some co-ordinated backing steps. That four-piece backing unit would be described by Maredza as being like "honey without the bees" and featured Larry Lewis (guitar), Tich Gombiro (bass), Gordon Mapeka (drums) and Ruben Esguerra (percussion). Ever the showman, Maredza danced right off the stage to end the set.

For a little while it looked like the clouds were about to burst, but there would only be a few scattered drops of rain before the sun started breaking through as Ijo Vudu took the stage. This percussion and dance group was founded by Sani-Abu, who grew up in a family of traditional dancers in Nigeria before making his home in Toronto. The troupe featured five drummers behind the highly-kinetic dancers, but the ensemble started with some sing/chanting before getting down to the movement.

Once they got to it, the stage was a blur of beautiful costumes. Given that I was sweating through my sunscreen as fast as I could apply it, I could only imagine how hot it much be for the dancers moving like that up on stage. This was one of the points in the weekend where the visual element was predominant, but the pounding drums certainly held their own appeal.

Listen to a track from this set here.

This was a special weekend for Ruth Mathiang, who came to Toronto from South Sudan, which was celebrating its birth as an independent nation. And in a sign that musical alliances can matter more than lines on a map, she was joined by Waleed "Kush" Abdulhamid, born to the north in Sudan.

I'd previously seen the pair play as a more stripped-down duo, and here things started off based around their two voices, with a sort of invocation from each, delivered with a spiritual seriousness before the celebration (and the beat) kicked in and the crowd, waving their South Sudanese flags, started dancing in front of the stage.

With the full band treatment (drums/percussion/keyb/bass on stage) there were some more expansive arrangements to the songs. The band's celebratory uplift grooves were just right for Mathiang giving praise to "Mama Africa" before then moving on to a Miriam Makeba song.

The two voices made for a nice contrast — a dry desert wind and a lush green field — with Abdulhamid's rasp contrasting with Mathiang's pure, sweet tones. Abdulhamid was in more of a support role — though he did sing one of the songs I recalled from his Afrofest set the previous year, this was mostly Mathiang's set, and a memorable celebration for South Sudan.

Listen to a track from this set here.

A mid-afternoon set from JP Buse1 was quite likely something of a make-up date for his set at the previous Afrofest which was moved to the smaller Baobab stage and cut short after a falling tree shut down the main stage area. This time out, he had a younger group with a bit more of a casual vibe.

Buse gained renown in the Congo as a member of the renowned soukous group Zaiko Langa Langa — the same long-running band from which Papa Wemba had earlier emerged. Nowadays in Toronto, he works more in the gospel scene, but for this set he definitely brought the soukous rhythms — though there would be a few sanctified messages slipping their way in.

The set led off with a lengthy groove from the band, a half-dozen strong, before Buse took to the stage. His function here was to act as bandleader and elder statesman as much as a performer — a lot of vocals were delegated to a second-in-command/hype man — and to show off his work in mentoring the next generation of local Conolese musicians. If his eleven-year-old bassist — who played with dexterous aplomb — was anything to go by, he's definitely a good talent-spotter and musical influence. Sometimes, he'd pick out parts of the crowd to cajole into singing along, and then point out who in the band he wanted to play to accompany them.

Although the worst of the day's heat was starting to fade, it was still rather sultry out, and this was exactly the sort of music you could dance to in the thick, heavy heat — not so fast that you exhaust yourself right away, but groovy enough enough to get some momentum in your hips.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Between sets, the DJ threw down some Ethio-groove and soon there was a big circle of dancers in front of the stage that was quickly attracting its own onlookers. That gave a spark to the quickly-growing crowd, who were ready to be entertained, even if many on hand didn't know much about Dizu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo. Coming from South Africa, Plaatjies is a teacher as much as an entertainer, dedicated to preserving traditional sounds.

Plaatjies started the set alone on stage, making a musical offering to the ancestors with a mouth-bow and whistling, which together created an eerie effect. He was then joined by four more musicians, all playing animal horns — "they all look like rabbis," a guy behind me joked.

Every song would bring a different instrument or style to the fore — the set most certainly wasn't lacking for variety. "African Refugee", with its triple marimba action and 12-string guitar, was a rather gorgeous folk song in the mode of "Mbube"/"Wimoweh".

This project brought an interesting tension that I could feel a bit around me. A contemporary African is more likely to be standing in a city talking on a cellphone than dancing in a loincloth and facepaint, and I think to some folks this sort of folkloric display felt a bit out of the past — the sort of pageant that would be put on for tourists or for support-your-traditions edification. Or worse: the sense that this is your parents' music — there was a group of younger guys standing beside me, and I could sort of sense that they were a little put off by this at the start — eye-rolling awkwardness at a bit of enforced cultural appreciation apparently being a cross-cultural feeling in the young.

The flipside is that the crosswinds of modern cultural exchange made some of this sound downright contemporary — one song with pan pipes and backward-sounding yelps would probably be right at home on Tune-Yards' next album. At any rate, the joy of the performers and the power of the music were kinda undeniable — one song with non-stop rapidfire sing-speaking, sounding like the product of a Xhosa Spoonie Gee, got the young folks around me more on side. And then the percussion — not just drums, but also lot of homemade shakers and other implements — took over, and pretty much the whole crowd was fully into it.

Plaatjies also brought a lot of musicological knowledge to the stage, but presented it with a soft-sell smile. And though at first the crowd had a bit of a wait-and-see attitude toward the band, this was a big favourite by the time they finished. By the time Plaatjies introduced the players at the end, everyone got big cheers. Definitely a highlight of the weekend.

I had previously shared a track from this set here — and now you can check out a different style here.

New-found friends are one thing, but the crowd was pronouncedly eager to hear the night's headliner, and there was a huge cheer even for Thomas Mapfumo's first guitar riff as he soundchecked. Legends get an extra-warm welcome. Making his 3rd Afrofest appearance, though the first since '99, Mapfumo is a true innovator who transposed the plucked lines of Zimbabwe's mbira (thumb piano) to the electric guitar — his rocking recordings from the 70's and 80's are truly essential.

Border Trouble, that frequent pox on bands visiting Toronto, reared its head and the band's lead guitarist and bassist were not on hand. After some behind-the-scenes considerations, some local fill-ins were brought in to round out the band. They included Larry Lewis on guitar and Tich Maredza, who was playing bass. That's not his primary instrument, but as a guy who surely grew up with this music in Zimbabwe, he had a strong feel for it.2 And perhaps to act as reinforcement, there was also Evelyn Mukwedeya, a young but very talented local player, on mbira.

Mapfumo was apologetic for not presenting his full band, and seemed a little pained, at times — as if this was more a gig to be gotten through than cherished. That might be one reason why Mapfumo, dressed in black, and often singing while half doubled-over, gave off an air more of sorrow than joy. But still, it brought a shiver to hear that keening yelp in his voice.

I'd seen Mapfumo a few years before — he was last in town in 2006 as part of the International AIDS Conference — and even then, his rhythms relied more toward on mbira than guitar. At this show, there were two guitars on stage, but Mapfumo didn't always feel the need to play his own (sometimes he'd just comp on a single chord while the band was playing) and Lewis was, I'm sure, being careful to pick his spots. There were also drums, a keyboard player/percussionist and a pair of horns, and marshalling his resources, Mapfumo shifted the lineup a bit from song to song. One had no guitar at all, just stripped-down mbira lines intertwining behind his voice.

At first the set felt more like a triumph of perseverance than musically majestic. A couple songs felt like trucks bouncing around on a pothole-filled road, just barely making it to the destination. But as the set went on, it felt like everyone was getting a little more comfortable on stage. And when things were working, the band smartly rode out the grooves for a little longer, creating some tasty passages. Though Mapfumo never seemed quite settled or entirely happy with the sound until toward the end of the set, when he did relax a bit, it was ultimately a worthy effort — though telling that there would be no encore to close out the festival.

Listen to a track from this set here.

But on the whole, another fine year. Although there were a lot of calls from the stage of "next year we'll be back here or nowhere at all", the tradition of Afrofest is too strong to be derailed, and a year later, even without its traditional venue, the show would go on at Woodbine Park, leaving Al Purdy — who had spent the entirety of both days hanging around in the backstage area — to drink by himself.

1 It should be noted that his name has the French pronunciation gee-pay, not the English-style initials jay-pea.

2 The story, as I later heard it, was that after finishing their own set earlier in the afternoon, Maredza and Lewis rushed over to Mapfumo's hotel to cram in as much rehearsal as possible.

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