On a day that weather-wise can only be described as “stunning” even by Los Angeles standards, some of the greats from Africa and other strong acts from the USA took to Los Angeles’ most famous stage, The Hollywood Bowl. As the opening night of KCRW’s World Music Festival, Baaba Maal the famous Senegalese singer headlined tonight’s lineup, but with an early noise curfew to meet, this show had four other acts slated to play first so there was no time to waste.
With a clear sky above and a warm breeze on the air, the crowd filed into the celebrated venue as LA collective Fool’s Gold (not to be confused with the record label of the same name) started things off. Seven members strong, Fool’s Gold played a lively form of afrobeat music, opting for the rhythm and percussion to work as color for their sound rather than the sole backbone. Lead singer/bassist Luke Top sounded shaky at first on “Nadine,” but by “Ha Dvash” had found the pulse of the audience.
West African Desert musicians Tinariwen came next. Having a back-story as famous as their music, the Touareg collective found their niche blending rock influence with the traditional music of their home country during a brief time of war and struggle for independence. Consisting of members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Touhami Ag Alhassane and Elaga Ag Hamid on guitar, Eyadou Ag Lecho on bass, Said Ag Ayad and Mohamed Ag Tahada on percussion, and Wonou Walet Sidati on backup vocals, Tinariwen lacked any bombastic explosiveness. Instead, the group patiently stepped through meditative phrasing, calmly weaving an intricate polyrhythm as every member of the group sang in subdued harmony. We first wrote about Tinariwen seven years ago and it’s a pleasure to see that their music live is as evocative of the culture where it was created as it was on record. The group even had a special guest in TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone on backing guitar for two songs.
The sun inching behind the horizon, the hippest band on the bill, Yeasayer from Brooklyn New York City, followed Tinariwen. In the strongest showing of the evening, the three singers from Yeasayer—Anand Wilder, Ira Wolf Tuton and Chris Keating—joyfully harmonized over energetic funked-out pop. Keating took center stage bleating out falsettos as the group nimbly laid out the rhythm. Wilder provided the contrast, singing in a richer, slightly lower register. The crowd started to loosen up and dance along. In a surprising twist, “Sunrise” from the group’s stellar debut All Hour Cymbals still solid in its representation was eclipsed in quality by Odd Blood track “O.N.E.” By the conclusion of their set, the harmonies had cemented into a rich texture stacking nicely with the vibrant instrumentation.
The double-shot finale of Playing for Change and Baaba Maal brought the crowd to its feet, at first enticing them to participate and later inciting them to release. Playing for Change, a collective formed around the concept of how music can unite people from all walks of life played three songs to intro Baaba Maal. The nine member band played with heart and passion, as if there was nary a thing in the world to be sad about. It was a fearless optimism that can never be slighted. Suspiciously sitting quietly on a chair onstage, Grandpa Elliot rose up during their closing cover of Ben E. King’s brilliant “Stand by Me,” and his rich voice was greeted with the most elated cheer of the night. Playing for Change urged the crowd to sing with them through the song’s unforgettable chorus. Baaba Maal started only mere minutes later, opening with an avalanche of percussion from his backing band. Maal guided the crowd (and his performers) with an effortless focus and grace, surfing above the music, punctuating it when appropriate. He stopped briefly at points to speak about his belief in the connectedness of our world and its people. “This is how it should be. We are all connected,” he said before launching into a massive jam called “Podor Assikio.”
The energy and fun-loving nature displayed here cannot be denied. These African-raised (or inspired) groups championed their culture without grandstanding; desiring nothing save for the celebration and thoughtful understanding of life. It was a fitting opening for this year’s World Music Festival and a great way to spend a Sunday night.