Sounds of Africa served three ways

Boston Globe, February 25, 2011

A concert is a product, and sometimes a product is felt to require a brand name to describe it and attract audience and sales. This is often the case with tours that feature international artists who might or might not share a stage in their regions of origin.

“Acoustic Africa,” which hits the Somerville Theatre Sunday, is such a product. It gathers two fine musicians from Mali, Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum, and one from Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi, in a supergroup with members of their regular bands.

It’s a stellar lineup, and even though the packaging’s implicit claim that they represent, somehow, the entire African continent, is spurious at best, the tour – fresh from a series of European dates late last year – is a chance to catch masters at work and in a potentially exciting setting for cross-genre improvisation and interplay.

Though Koite and Bocoum are both Malian, they represent different regions and traditions in that country’s rich folk and popular music. Koite is an internationalist who has made a smooth, silky style of Afropop since the early days of the “world music” category in the 1980s; while Bocoum is a hard-driving exponent of the so-called “desert blues” epitomized by his friend and teacher, the late Ali Farka Toure.

Mtukudzi, meanwhile, has migrated back in recent years from a cosmopolitan sound to one that gives more prominence to Zimbabwean, and specifically Shona, song and instruments, including the distinctive mbira, sometimes called thumb piano.

All three, however, have this in common: They are expert guitarists, fine soulful singers, and veteran bandleaders with a consummate stage presence. And judging from footage of their European gigs, they’ve had no trouble meshing their compositions and delivering exuberant music from the front of the stage, with a backline of two members from each man’s working band supplying accompaniment.

The combination seems to have taken. “I like experimenting,” says Mtukudzi by e-mail from a separate gig in Colombia. “Collaborations are healthy for all of us – the artists, the fans, and listeners. This project has influenced my music and I hope it did the same for my fellow artists.”

That said, each man has his own style and legacy to put forward – none more than Bocoum, who not only played for years with Toure but comes from the same remote village, Niafunke, making him heir not just to the sound but to the special role a hometown artist plays in such a community.

“It’s a very heavy responsibility,” says Bocoum, on the phone from Mali, of following Toure. “I don’t play like him, I don’t have his charisma, I have nothing except his philosophy. That boils down to: Stay in the country. Never abandon your home village.”

Though Bocoum happily travels and tours overseas, his songs, in local languages Songhai, Tamashek, and Bambara, are oriented first of all to bringing constructive messages to his home.

“You have to take advantage of every opportunity to inform people,” he says. “Here, for instance, when people have no money, they just say, `There’s no money’ – rather than interpret the economy. So I sing in a down-to-earth way. For instance, I sing about protecting the Niger River. And people hear it and it has an impact.”

Bocoum says other topics he addresses include the fight against female genital mutilation and child abuse. “We need to have a certain dignified behavior so we can all advance.”

Koite also still makes his home in Mali, though he spends much of the year on tour overseas, which makes, he says, for a “double life” that lets him perform a great deal but lowers his recorded output.

“The moments are very full,” he says by phone from Bamako. “In this country that is called poor – although we’re by no means unhappy – when you become an international artist you have to deal with a lot of people’s needs.” He’s also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and helps represent Mali’s annual Festival in the Desert, among other ventures.

Koite has watched audiences change both at home and in the “world music” market. He observes that although a revival of traditional music is underway in Mali and elsewhere, new pop forms rule the roost. As a result, artists who draw on traditional styles – such as himself – are “loved, respected – but we don’t drive people wild.”

By contrast, he and his peers have found plenty of recognition abroad over the years. Koite says that the connection with Western ears will never be complete; yet that does not make it any less meaningful. Even when the music’s structure and lyrics are foreign, the power of evocation remains.

“You can never say that a Westerner will grasp everything,” Koite says, “but now we’re in the realm of dreams, of hearing and feeling. I cannot interpret everyone’s dreams, but I know they have imagined something in their soul.”