The African music event of the season isn't just a treat for American audiences. For the musicians involved in the Acoustic Africa tour, it's a welcome and all-too-rare opportunity to immerse themselves in the sounds and rhythms of fellow artists from very different traditions.
Featuring pan-Malian guitar star Habib Koité, Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi, and Mali's Afel Bocoum, a protégé of the late guitar master Ali Farka Toure, Acoustic Africa concludes a spate of Northern California dates on Friday, March 25, at the Paramount Theatre. The collaboration extends off the bandstand. These three formidable guitarists (four actually, as Bocoum's contingent includes the esteemed Malian guitarist Mamadou Kelly), all of whom are now in their fifties, spend a lot of their time together exchanging information.
"Africa is a big continent and we don't know each other," Koite said. "For me, Acoustic Africa is a chance to meet and discover and learn some more. We're together in the dressing room, the tour bus — all the time we try to learn from each other. That's why I can say, 'Oliver, how do you do this kind of thing?' When he plays guitar, I watch his fingers, and he does the same for me."
Launched in 2006 by the world music label Putumayo in conjunction with a compilation album of the same name, Acoustic Africa has featured a revolving triple bill over a series of wide-ranging dates across Europe and North America. Koite is the only holdover from previous tours.
Rather than featuring three combos, the slimmed-down package includes two musicians from each bandleader's group, and various combinations of players from song to song. Each leader gets several solo features, but there are also fascinating combinations — for instance, Mtukudzi and Koite teaming up accompanied by the West African calabash, a percussionist instrument made from a large gourd, and the Shona mbira, the thumb piano that plays a central role in much Zimbabwean music.
"When I was told I was going to do a collaboration with Malian groups, I thought they would play the same thing," Mtukudzi said."But Mali is a huge country with a lot of different styles. Afel comes from the desert in the north, and Habib comes from the greener side in the west, so it's like they're from different countries. Still, we have a song that we argue about. They say it's Malian. I say, no it's Zimbabwean!"
Mtukudzi is well recognized in the US, mostly thanks to Bonnie Raitt — who began championing his music in the mid-1990s — and British producer Steve Dyer, who turned Mtukudzi's 1998 album Tuku Music into an international hit. Likewise, Koite enjoys a fair amount of worldwide name recognition. In comparison, Bocoum is relatively unknown. A master of the lean, sinewy desert blues made famous by Ali Farka Touré, he sings mainly in Sonrai, the language of his father, but also in Bambara and the Tuareg tongue, Tamashek. He joined Farka Toure's band in 1968 at the age of thirteen and stayed for 10 years, when he left to launch his own band, Alkibar (Sonrai for "messenger of the great river"). Marked by medium tempo incantatory lines, his music evokes the vast expanse of the Sahara.
"In the north we have many influences from Arab and Berber music mixed with black African music," Koite says. "The Tuareg and Sonrai make really special music. Afel blends his guitar with the njarka, a small one-string fiddle. It's something really deep."
All three leaders avoid direct involvement in politics, but they work to address social issues on and off the bandstand. Koite hasn't released an album since 2007's Afriki (Cumbancha) because he spends much of his time on the road performing or working as a UNICEF ambassador. Mtukudzi, who helped rally the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980, has watched his country disintegrate over the past decade as President Robert Mugabe clings to power by brutalizing political opponents. Though the ruling party has tried to compromise him, Mtukudzi is confident that he retains the trust of the people.
And his musical philosophy is pretty noncombative. "My music is one of the very few things that Zimbabweans share equally, no matter where you come from, what color you are, what tastes you have, or what party you support," Mtukudzi said. "The aim of my music is to try to unite everyone."