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The First Ebony Festival : A Celebration of Africa

By Mike Zwerin

DAKAR, SENEGAL, 26 July 2004—Under a full moon and the red flags of the Coca Cola company, the sponsor, the first Ebony Festival of African Music ("A Celebration of Africa") took place in the Demba Diop soccer stadium in Dakar last month.

The Senegalese Youssou N'Dour, Alpha Blondy and Magic System from Ivory Coast, MC Solaar from Chad by way of France, and Jimmy Cliff from Jamaica were featured. Stevie Wonder and Nigeria's Femi Kuti failed to appear as advertised. Koffi Olomide from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is lobbying President Joseph Kabila for help to build a modern recording studio in their country, was prevented from traveling by marauding gangs in Kinshasa.

The sound system—17 tons of material flown down from Paris—was about the best stadium sound this critic has ever heard. The hardware always worked and the music was always balanced and loud enough to reach everywhere without distortion. There were, nevertheless, communications breakdowns. Arrive an hour late for a concert and you were still early. Although people like Cliff, Blondy and N'Dour can draw over 15,000 people on their own, the audience was only about 10% of the expected 30,000 people. It was a strong program and the admission price was not excessive—about one and a half euros—but the misleading advertising and defective publicity hurt. Money was obviously lost.

These were respected African musicians, often the pride of their countries, who perform regularly in Europe, the US and even the Far East but not all that often in mother Africa. Many of them had traveled long distances to play the Ebony Festival and it was obviously important to them to play their hearts out. The small crowd rattling around in the big stadium with the big-stadium sound system produced, despite the good music, a certain negativity. What audience there was was enthusiastic—everybody was dancing and for once they could get close enough to the stage to actually see the stars. African pop tends to be better than contemporary Euro-American pop music in that it is made by real live human beings, it swings more and you can always dance to it. Unfortunately, there was a lot of room to dance.

During an elite (Coca Cola invitees) and paleface-heavy opening night benefit party on the historical island of Goree, a debarkation point for the slave trade, local hero Youssou N'Dour, who has an angelic voice and owns a recording studio and a nightclub in Dakar (they call him "president"), made a speech in which he pleaded: "The music of Africa is rich, not poor. We must encourage it."

Some perspective. According to the June issue of the Francophone magazine AM, the African recording industry is in even more catastrophic shape than ever. The article says that when Koffi Olomide recently asked for an advance of 120,000 euros for his next album, it proved that he did not understand the gravity of the crisis. It holds that the system of advances itself must be abolished, and that production costs must be drastically reduced. Equally important, CD prices must come down. The magazine points out that Cuban musicians produce their albums for about 15,000 euros and that the price of a CD in Brazil is only seven euros and both musics are in relatively healthy shape.

Musically speaking, there is no need to mourn Bob Marley while Alpha Blondy is alive and well. Blondy's African reggae included African percussion and R&B and rock licks and grooves. If anything, his music was more sophisticated than Marley's. Of course one would not be possible without the other, but Blondy's songs such as "God Bless America" and "Politruc" (he sings in French) build on Marley rather than just covering him.

The group Magic System was fronted by four male dancer-singers who sang in four-part harmony while performing their complex choreography to their band's infectious beat. They sang no wrong notes and were never winded. It was showmanship in the most positive sense of the term—a lot worth showing. The rapper MC Solaar performed with pre-recorded music, it was more like live television than a concert. He was, however, very intense and he projected the feeling that he really cared about what he was doing.

A scantily clad female dancer was shimmying and shaking behind Solaar. The celebration of African women on this particular stage was basically as objects. (The singers Angelique Kidjo, from Benin, and Miriam Makeba and Tracy Chapman were other advertised absentees.) One unmentionable act featured three women dressed in tight jeans waving their butts at the audience while a fourth revealed her unreal cleavage. In general, most of the girls on stage were there to be beautiful—being able to sing or dance was more or less a bonus.

Mostly, however, this "Celebration of Africa" was rich and rewarding and necessary and hopefully there will be more of them.

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.

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