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Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

As the title implies, this concert was conceived as a recreation, or extension, of the 2002 Fela Kuti tribute album that included-among the dozens of participants-jazz artists such as Roy Hargrove, Ron Blake and Brian Lynch. The album was part of the “Red Hot” series designed to raise money and awareness in the fight against AIDS. Fela, the Nigerian saxophonist, singer, composer, inventor of Afrobeat, seminal world music artist and political activist, died in 1997 from AIDS and is therefore a perfect figure for the series and, specifically, for the task of heightening awareness about AIDS in Africa.

The capacity crowd in Brooklyn was in a festive mood when the evening got underway with footage of Fela performing and speaking projected onto a scrim over the stage, finishing with his famous quote, “Music is the weapon of the future.” The onstage musical hosts of the evening were guitarist-producer Andres Levin and his group Yerba Buena, the Latin-funk dance group put together following the musical success of the Red Hot and Riot CD, which Levin produced and assembled.

The 10-member band consisted of two guitarists (one of them Levin), special guest John Medeski on keyboards, a horn trio that included Alex Harding on baritone sax and trumpeter David Guy, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, kit drummer Skoots Warner and two percussionists. From the first number, Yerba Buena dished up an infectiously in-the-pocket version of Fela’s Afrobeat, edgier and heavier than the original. Afrobeat-an amalgam of jazz, funk, African highlife and traditional Nigerian melodies-was always gloriously multi-layered and open, and the rest of the night was in many ways a feast of musical mixology.

The performers who joined the New York-based band onstage throughout the night included Nigerian born singer-guitarist Keziah Jones, French singing duo Les Nubians in a trio with Cuban singer CuCu Diamantes, Senegalese singer-drummer Cheikh Lo, local rappers Dead Prez, Mali singing duo Amadou and Mariam and-the obvious draw for Afrobeat fans-the great drummer from Fela’s Africa 70, Tony Allen.

One early highlight was the Nigerian-born Jones, whose vocals channeled the sound and spirit of Fela that no one else could even approach. His guitar playing was also notable. Using a telecaster turned up loud, he played a bluesy solo with an interesting string-slapping technique. After his feature he remained onstage playing guitar throughout the concert. The vocal trio was also onstage for most of the night, dancing and singing backup in the manner of Fela’s “queens” but also featured on Fela classics “Zombie” and “Upside Down.” Alex Harding came front-and-center with a rowdy baritone solo on “Zombie.” Though Fela played tenor sax, baritone was always a big part of his group’s sound and Harding struck the right balance of jazz improvisation and walking-the-bar blowing.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was how quietly Tony Allen played. After the revved-up groove of Yerba Buena’s Afrobeat, to be taken back to the lighter, laid-back beat of “the architect of Afrobeat,” as Levin introduced him, was almost like shifting down a gear. Even when Allen sang, it was with a warm, calm spoken voice much less proclaiming than Fela’s.

It was, however, Amadou and Mariam who stole the show with both of their feature numbers. One of these was “Walide (The Girl I Love),” a hypnotically catchy-but-grand African pop song. Amadou’s guitar playing had a more typically African sound than that of the other three guitarists onstage-super clean with dense clusters of notes-though it, too, revealed a love of American blues. John Medeski added choice sounds throughout, whether it was a soulful B3 swell behind Amadou and Mariam, or a distorted, angular solo on “Upside Down” that recalled some of Fela’s low-tech 1970s electronic keyboards with added bite. Dead Prez were featured on “Suffering and Shmiling.” Cheikh Lo both sang and played drums on different songs. The second-to-last number was “Gentleman,” full-bore funk in the hands of Levin and Co. with an excellent vocal by percussionist Pedro Martinez. Ndegeocello got the best lyrics of the night with the chantlike questioning, “Does your mind write a check that your heart can’t cash?”

Everyone was onstage for the finale, “Water No Get Enemy,” a rousing cap to a thoroughly enjoyable performance that amply demonstrated the enormous vitality, flexibility and relevance of Fela Kuti’s musical legacy.

Originally Published