This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Africa Fte, a brightly entertaining music festival certain to please fans with adventurous ears.
Originally created by Mamadou Konte, a Paris-based immigrant from Senegal who wanted Europeans to become familiar with the music of his home continent, Fte has played in the United States since 1993. Each year the event is marked by a CD compilation of Fte musicians and a national tour.
Past years have offered African musicians overwhelmingly involved with courting Western audiences through large-scale incorporations of rock and pop. This year's festival highlights artists who have forged novel ways to synthesize Western pop music with African traditions.
No better example of an uncanny ability to blend the best of tradition and innovation is Zimbabwe's best-selling artist, Oliver Mtukudzi. His music is featured on the new "Africa Fte '99" compilation disc (Palm Pictures) and on his first album on a US label, "Tuku Music" (Putumayo).
A deep-voiced singer (think of a soul singer like Otis Redding transplanted to southern Africa) and fine acoustic guitarist, Mtukudzi composes songs emphasizing moral self-discipline, with several tunes addressing the harsh effects of the AIDS crisis.
Lyrics brimming with traditional folk maxims communicate through musical settings full of rhythms drawn from Zimbabwean folk music as well as contemporary South African and American pop music. Mtukudzi's seven-piece band comfortably blends electric and acoustic instruments into memorable sounds marked by hummable melodies.
What Mtukudzi is to Zimbabwe, the singer Baaba Maal is to Senegal. An international superstar, Maal has achieved fame through a style true to his ethnic roots yet commercially viable in the West.
He stitches together unlikely elements: the melodic folk tunes of northern Senegal, the vocal arabesques identified with Islamic chanting, and rhythmic touches borrowed from reggae and rock. The two songs by Maal on the "Africa Fte '99" disc alone justify buying the CD. Maal's voice explodes with rhythmic energy and harmonic range.
His lyrics often deal with the need for religious faith, and his words are sung with such velocity that the steadfastness of the performer's faith can't be questioned.
He is a thrilling live performer who often executes high-stepping traditional dances on stage while he sings with his electric band of musicians comfortable with a full spectrum of African and Western styles, with plenty of dramatic appeal.
While intensity characterizes Mtukudzi and Maal, a laid-back sensibility informs the joyful duet of Toumani Diabate and American bluesman Taj Mahal. Their appearance in this year's "Fte" is timed with the release of their first CD together, "Kulanjan" (Hannibal Records). Two of their songs are also featured on the "Fte" compilation disc.
Backed by a six-piece Malian ensemble, a lovely empathy floats from the roughhewn blues guitarist and the Senegalese kora player. The kora is a 21-string West African lute that possesses a sound not unlike that of a nylon-stringed classical guitar.
The kora player and guitarist move in and out of blues, exploring the West African roots of the blues in a manner delightfully unselfconscious and whimsical. Fans of the lute's gentle sound will also be treated to the kora playing of Kaouding Cissoko from Maal's band on both the compilation CD and on stage.
It is clearly quixotic to try to suggest the wealth of African pop music through a few discs and a summer tour. But this thoughtful showcase of artists offers a brilliant window into many significant trends in the best of African music today. This is one festival not to be missed.
*Africa Fte '99 continues through Sept. 4. For more information and tour dates, log onto the Web at www.africafete99.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society