Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Concert Review: Various Artists- Afrofest, July 7-8, Queen's Park, Toronto

How appropriate that Toronto's first big, free, summer music party comes right after Dominion Day. There are always plenty of events competing for folks' attention, from the re-named Steelback Indie to the official Yonge Street party, but that is what makes Afrofest one of the city's best loved music events among Africans and the sonically adventurous, and one of Toronto's best kept secrets, simultaneously.
For the nineteenth year, Music Africa have once again excelled in booking a wide array of talent featuring African music (with a dash of samba on Saturday) from the continent and more locally sourced grooves. There were no less than three stages set up at Queen's Park, including one for hand drummers looking to do their thing with like minded people. There was also the "Village" full of food and souvenir vendors, selling everything from incense to dvd's to large exotic insects preserved as paperweights. This is also one of the few truly all-ages events in this city, where all ages usually means "all" of those years from 16 to 18, or else family events geared more for little children than anyone else. Afrofests brings out families, singles, couples, and people of all ages and colours seeking a good time. Once again, the entire event was broadcast live on CIUT 89.5 FM ( online), complete with between-set interviews with some of the artists.
Saturday saw a few local acts demonstrate their dancing and drumming, and local act Samba Squad fit right in despite their obvious Brazilian-inspired sound. Cameroonian singer Nya Soleil led his band through an upbeat set of melodic, almost gentle African grooves with his band. Unfortunately, so few people in the audience spoke French, so basic stage chatter like introducing the band and inviting the audience to sing along were largely lost on the crowd. HAJAMadagascar and The Groovy People followed Nya Soleil, playing even more upbeat music for the growing mass of spectators. Dancing in the crowd picked up during HAJAMadagascar's set, creating what the Afrofest Official Guide describes as "a real riba satrana"- or dust ball, referring to the dust that kicks kicked by dancers on the ground. HAJAMadagascar (sic) is a musicologist and multi-instrumentalist who led his band The Groovy People through different genres of Malagasy music. This was yet another excellent Canadian debut for an African artist performing at this festival. It is also likely one of the few places in North America where one can expect a decent turn-out of people from the home countries of most Afrofest performers, from Madagascar to Morocco. Saturday night's final performance ended at 11 p.m. as required by law, but not before the Mali-Quebec collaboration Abdoulaye Diabate and Source played a rousing set that kept everyone on their feet. Their Afro-fusion sound was augmented by Japanese keyboardist Emi Yabuno, and the band was led by Abdoulaye Diabate and Quebecois musician Sylvain Leroux, who stood side by side for most of the performance.
Sunday started at a leisurely pace, with a dance performance getting things underway. Pekoce, a keyboard player and M.C. from the Democratic Republic of Congo went over particularly well with the younger members of the audience. Isaac Akrong & African Dance Ensemble followed, featuring a percussion section backing a dance, which was choreographed by musicologist Isaac Akrong for Music Africa to celebrate fifty years of Independence in Ghana. This ensemble included a large, cubic, drum, which one could hit from the side, or straddle while playing the front surface. In a weekend packed with exotic drums, this one stood out in particular.
Maroc'N'Real followed with Hassan El Hadi, who is one of Morrocco's best loved oude players. Singer Sabah Lachgar's vocals maintained a North African feel to the music, which was complemented by flute playing from Marie Saintonge. Their music was enjoyed, but the audience's excitement rose palpably between sets, with the anticipated arrival of the Cape Verde singer, Lura.
It was a mere coincidence that Brazilian rhythms would return for a second day at Afrofest, but Lura's Bossa Nova sound was very enthusiastically received. Despite the sudden rain, Lura danced around the stage and seemed to enjoy herself. Her songs, in Portuguese, are apparently in the Cape Verde Batuku style that describes local issues, but like calypso and reggae, one can talk politics and keep the groove flowing, as Lura demonstrated.
Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga closed Afrofest with another drum-heavy set that inspired the crowd to keep on dancing despite the long day. The Congolese born Samba Mapangala got his musical start in Uganda and later in Nairobi, Kenya. With his group Orchestra Virunga, Samba recorded a number of African hits through the 1980's. He has since relocated to Maryland, but he brought several Virunga alumni for this appearance. Queen's Park was by now filled with eager fans dancing away, but the show still ended on time.
Next year, Afrofest turns twenty. It has slowly but steadily grown into one of the most musically reliable events of the season, despite bringing in acts which few people outside the various African and World Music communities have even heard of. This is a challenge which is only compounded by recruiting acts which would normally be prohibitively expensive for promoters to bring to Toronto. Adventurous music fans who missed Afrofest this year should keep this festival in mind for 2008.
Pictures of Afrofest are posted at, check under the "Live Shots" set.

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