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28 February 2008

Leaders of the rebellion

Three unorthodox Africans know how to cast a spell over their audience

By Simon Broughton

African Soul Rebels
Barbican Hall, London EC2

This is now the fourth African Soul Rebels tour, so there is some danger of it becoming just a brand. Yet actually, all the musicians on the tour this year – Salif Keita, Tony Allen and Didier Awadi – really are rebels, each in his different way.

First on for the flagship gig at the Barbican (18 February) was the rapper Awadi, in a white shell suit with the green, yellow and red of the Senegalese flag emblazoned under his arms. Rap is the most popular music in Africa and Senegal one of its liveliest epicentres. Awadi was in Positive Black Soul, his country’s most popular and outspoken rap group through the Nineties, before embarking on a solo career in 2005.

Rap might be huge in Africa, but, to an international audience, African rap can smack of the clichés of American hip-hop, hectoring vocals all delivered in an incomprehensible language. Awadi, with his good command of English, breaks through this barrier with a wry humour: “Sorry, I was colonised by the French.” Even better, he has a decent band to add some interest – notably his dancing kora player, Noumoucounda Cissoko, who took things to another musical level.

Awadi is charismatic and energetic on stage, and he ran from side to side, grasping at the air. “Are you ready for the revolution?” he asked. “George Bush is a criminal,” he continued, though this was hardly greeted as a revolutionary thought. “Who else?” He approached individuals in the audience directly and squeezed out the names of Nicolas Sarkozy and Joseph Kabila of the Congo. But there was one name he was after. Many people were shouting it out, but he continued whipping up the crowd. “Come on, London,” he cried, “give me the name.” He got it in the end, of course: “Tony Blair!” He called this democracy, yet it felt very manipulative. But in a few minutes Awadi had shown himself to be a powerful personality, and how easy it is to manipulate a crowd is perhaps part of his point.

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Next Salif Keita – the glorious Malian singer who spearheaded the rise of world music as a genre 20 years ago. Salif is a rebel because he comes from the regal Keita family – a descendant of the warrior king Sundiata Keita, who ruled the Mande empire in the 13th century and is still frequently celebrated in song. Mali’s royal families, however, are not supposed to engage in music. That is the job of the jalis, hereditary musicians who sing the praises of rulers and recount their history. Salif defied his father’s wishes, becoming a musician and singing in the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs, two seminal West African bands of the Seventies, before heading for Paris and kicking off the African music boom in Europe.

Keita walked out onstage alone, dressed in a silver-grey robe and white skullcap, to rapturous applause. He knelt, and then, picking up his guitar, accompanied himself in one of his gentle, lyrical songs. Keita has one of the greatest voices in Africa – soft in its lower registers, but with tough desert grit when he sings out. Next he was joined by Makan Tounkara on ngoni, the simple desert lute that looks alarmingly like a cricket bat. Then his six-piece acoustic ensemble added the kamalengoni harp, guitars, and a booming overturned calabash as percussion.

From the moment he entered, he transfixed the audience, working long instrumental sections into his songs and drawing listeners into a trance-like state. As the rolling rhythms kicked in, a guy in a pork-pie hat in the front row got up and stood on his seat to dance. Before anyone officious could tell him to sit down, scores of people were up and dancing, entranced by the mellifluous lines and fluid rhythms. This was democracy in action.

Respectfully deferring to age, the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, aged 67, was last on. He is a rebel by his 16-year association with one of Africa’s most defiant, irrepressible and iconic musical figures, Fela Kuti. Together Allen and Kuti created afrobeat, one of Africa’s most enduring musical styles. Yet, however brilliant, a kit drummer does not lead a band, and neither does a guy with a trumpet, white trainers and T-shirt (Nicolas Giraud), who was doing most of the work in Allen’s five-piece group. The music made me long for Fela, his larger-than-life persona and his powerful horn section. This seemed slim and one-dimensional after the transcendental mastery of Salif Keita.

Pick of the week

Emerson String Quartet
3 March, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1
Works by Mozart and Brahms.

3 March, Custard Factory, BirminghamThe groundbreaking electronica act preview their new album.

Brazilian Baile Funk
7 March, the Galtymore, London NW2
Three of Rio de Janeiro’s top acts.