Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Festival: Afrofest 2011 (Saturday)

Afrofest 2011 (feat. Anastasio & Zalang / Zekuhl / Afrafranto / Femi Abosede & Culture Force / Cheick Hamala Diabate)

Queen's Park. Saturday, July 9, 2011.

Afrofest at Queen's Park is an essential part of summer — and possibly a victim of its own success. With the city having some concerns about the sheer size that the event had grown to, and trying to give a respite to the trees and turf in the park, it wanted the festival to find another venue. It was only after mobilizing the community and putting some pressure on the City that everything came together. But this would be the last — at least for now — Afrofest at Queen's Park.

And though I dearly love the venue, for both its easy transit access and the comforting, shady vibe, one could see the reason for the city's discomfort at having so many people using the space. The trees were under a lot of stress from all the foot traffic compacting the dirt above their roots, and there had been a near-crisis the previous year when a large falling branch caused some injuries. And the ground in front of the stage was definitely looking very beaten up. The miniature dustbowl was bigger than ever, and what grass was left was brown and scrubby.

That didn't subtract from the enjoyment of the day, however. It was hot out, but rather perfect weather. I came into the park in time to catch the end of Afro-Cuban band Rumba Iyambo, a dancer jumping down from the stage to lead a conga line. The early crowd in front of the stage wasn't that thick, but there were people lounging in shade under the trees as far back as the eye could see, and well as plenty of folks wandering around through the food booths and the vendors.

The first full set I caught was from Anastasio & Zalang, a six-piece band behind Anastasio Bickie, with saxophone and percussion driving the weaving guitar lines of Bickie and Simon Akirov.

Hailing from Equatorial Guinea, Bickie has mixed a lot of diverse influences with the fang rhythms he grew up with. He formed a band in Spain before he came to Canada in '85 where he became one of the pioneers in Toronto's African music scene. His catchy rhythms included a dollop of reggae in "Would You Come By". Definitely a seasoned pro, he delivered with veteran savvy, showing some flashes of a spryer, younger self with a couple little jumps in the air during closer "Mamaye".

Listen to a track from this set here.

Shifting from A to Z, Zekuhl labels his music "Bolbo-Jazz". The stage name of Montréal-based Atna Njock, originally from Cameroon, this band had strong jazzy/funky undertones. Backed by drums/bass/sax, Njock played a nimble guitar, and he'd also add some percussion on what I took to be a big log on the stage, but was, in fact, a nkuu ("a wooden, cylinder-shaped drum with hollowed-out slits").

The afternoon sun was bright in front of the stage, and again, there were a lot of people back relaxing in the shade. Although, as you'd often see happen during Afrofest, one older guy who'd been dancing out front suddenly appeared on stage to stick some bills to Njock's pate. In acknowledgement, the singer switched back to the nkuu and the guy danced on stage for a bit before heading off. The set, including some of the songs from his then-new album1, occasionally brushed up against rumba and zouk rhythms, and the music was unrushed throughout, stretching out into sunny afternoon sky.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The crowd built up through the afternoon, with lots of people on hand celebrating the birth of South Sudan. Things had been running a little late, but a quick turnaround got things back on schedule as Afrafranto took the stage. Hailing from Ghana ("by way of Brampton and the Republic of Etobicoke," as the band joked) it was nice to see the band back at full force, and especially to see guitar hero Pa Joe on the stage, after a bit of a jury-rigged line the last time I had seen 'em. Here, they were nine deep all together, including sax and dual keyboards that were a bit more prominent in the mix than usual.

This is a band that knows how to play a big stage, stretching out their grooves as required. Vocalist Theo Yaw Boakye acted as the ringleader, singing low and almost toasting during "Agoro" but then picking it up to inveigh the crowd to get dancing. Otherwise, the band did their usual excellent job of playing off each other, stretching some sections of the songs and compressing others. After an extended percussion breakdown, you could hear the keyboardists making little darting stabs, as if sticking a toe in the water to see if it's time to jump back in. And always, when it seemed like the musicians might start drifting apart, Ebenezer Agyekum's bass kept things tethered.

In the first part of the set, the pacing was a bit stilted, with the band actually winding down between songs instead of the turn-on-a-dime segues that often happen. But once they really found their groove, the songs started to flow seamlessly. As it headed to the conclusion, Boakye sent out a birthday greeting to South Sudan and the band paid tribute to Miriam Makeba with an extended version of "Pata Pata" — a true Saturday night dance anthem — to close out the set.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The stage was filled up as Femi Abosede's set started with an extended instrumental groove from his backing unit Culture Force — a five-piece band (including a trio of players from Afrafranto), a six-piece horn section and three backing singers. They let that build for a few minutes before Abosede emerged to address the crowd briefly before taking his place up front with his saxophone and sinking back into the funky groove.

There's no doubt as to where Abosede's inspirations lie. With all the hallmarks of classic Afrobeat — that big horn section, pulsing keybs, and guitars keeping the scratchy rhythm — he hardly needed to tell the crowd that the song "No Compromise" was dedicated to Fela Kuti. And if there were any grounds for criticism, it would be for the fact that Abosede's sound is rigourously classicist to a fault. There's no envelopes being pushed here, and the set did lean a bit too much on covers of Fela's songs in the second half.

But when the hot summer sun has gone down and it's wonderfully pleasant out and you're dancing under the trees, a band playing full-force Afrobeat isn't something to argue with. And at any rate, there's no doubting Abosede's love of the music, or the fact that he came by his knowledge of it honestly — he spent a lot of time in his teenage years at The Shrine in Lagos, and when he sings that "Fela still lives" it's a promise he's committed to.

The band was a little bit more active a few years ago — his No Compromise album came out in '06 — but it looks like Abosede is still nurturing local music at Femi's Place, his restaurant up in Weston.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The festival's first night was headlined by Cheick Hamala Diabate, a griot from Mali who now makes his home in Washington D.C. With a full seven-piece band behind him, the music was very good right off the hop — extended grooves with solos all around. No slavish traditionalists, there were some adventurous sonics at play here — on the first song the guitarist had a pleasingly fuzzy tone, and the trumpet player was using some cool effects as well.

The second song had hints of afrobeat funkiness to it and was even better than the first — it was easy to see why this guy was the headliner — this was immersive stuff, and more than a half-hour zipped by in a flash. As with any griot worth their salt, Diabate was a natural and affable entertainer.

"Mali De Nou" switched it up again, a delicious slowburner with plenty of that effect-laden trumpet. A master of the ngoni (playing lefty to boot!), Diabate's playing was precise but never fussy. One song even incorporated a good dose of "Frère Jacques" and was played with an effect on the ngoni that almost made it sound like a steel drum. A really exciting discovery and a good close to the festival's first day, leaving a joyful feeling as the crowds shuffled out of the park, which was now in nestled in darkness, with everything feeling larger yet gathered in, cloaked and mysterious.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 You can grab this on his bandcamp.

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