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Live: Saadiq, Santigold and Femi Kuti strike Pan-African beat at Hollywood Bowl

June 22, 2009 |  5:27 pm
FEMI_300_ The great Afro-Caribbean-American power-pop diaspora has many prophets, from Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba to Berry Gordy and brother James Brown. At times it felt as if all of them were spiritually present during Sunday's electrifying Hollywood Bowl triple bill of Raphael Saadiq, Santigold and Femi Kuti & the Positive Force, expertly curated by KCRW's Garth Trinidad.

Straight outta Oakland, Bed-Stuy and Lagos, Nigeria, respectively, these three restless artists served up a cross-section of new school and retro old-school sounds that demonstrated how truly globalized pan-African music has become, even when its practitioners stay rooted in the cultural forms and political vocabularies that first nurtured them. 

Kuti, the son of Afro-beat progenitor Fela Anikulapo Kuti, clearly believes that art-making is a political act, even when the audience is busy partaking of Trader Joe's Brie and curried couscous salad. Kuti, like his outspoken father, makes no bones about his scathing views of Nigeria's corrupt elites and their crooked colonialist allies, which he expresses regularly and at severe personal risk.

His supreme achievement is to communicate that conviction with well-crafted hooks and up-tempo enthusiasm. Simultaneously celebratory and elegiac, his tunes (like Marley's) are danceable lamentations built around funky basslines, high-hat percussion and explosive brass.

In "Day By Day," his first new album in years, Kuti tunefully vents his indignation and skepticism at his underachieving continent, where dogma of whatever stripe often fails to deliver decent housing or drinkable water. "Marxism, socialism call it what you want" he sang in "One Two," a compact, two-minute number whose deep skepticism juxtaposes its rhythmic catchy-ness.

With his 10-piece band and three female backup singer-dancers setting the perpetual-motion tempos, Kuti skip-hopped across the stage, blowing his saxophone with urgency, pounding a Hammond organ and singing his lyrics in a voice that can alternately plead, growl or insinuate as the emotional requirements demand.
When he segued from the political to the brazenly erotic on the show-closing favorite "Beng Beng Beng," the effect of his explicit come-ons to the audience wasn't like watching Chuck Berry do his smirky ditty "My Ding-A-Ling." It was rather like watching a wise elder statesman urging his people to commit radical acts of self-liberation. 

Dignified professionalism, if not gravitas, is the stock-in-trade of Saadiq, a.k.a. Charlie Ray Wiggins, the onetime lead vocalist of the New Jack-R&B ensemble Tony! Toni! Toné! When he and his new band hit the stage in their skinny suits and ties, Malcolm X specs and, in the case of backup singer Erika Jerry, a Diana Ross 'do, it was as if the spirit of Motown and the civil rights era had come storming back. 

It was no coincidence that Saadiq's too-brief set opened and closed with a kinetic ska version of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," the utopian mantra from the rock-musical "Hair." Of the band's other songs (several unfortunately winnowed down for this performance), "100 Yard Dash" evoked vintage Holland-Dozier-Holland and "Just One Kiss" could've been a Smokey Robinson (or Marvin Gaye) and Martha Reeves duet, a chaste anthem for the then-emerging black middle class.

But this was no mere exercise in nostalgia. Saadiq has absorbed not only "the sound of young America" (as Motown was called) but also African black township music and the way that artists like Prince merge funkalicious bass, crunching guitar chords and gospel yelps. And he's keeping it real by keeping it contemporary: his penultimate number, "Big Easy," is a bluesy requiem for a girlfriend gone missing when the New Orleans levees broke.

Bridging Saadiq and Kuti's sets, Santigold represented polyglot Brooklyn with a set of dub electronica that produced echoes of Kraftwerk, Fishbone and such British two-tone outfits as the Selecter and the Specials. Dressed in a sparkly reptile-green pantsuit, the charismatic singer and her two robotic female sidekicks shimmied and skittered around a trio of bass, guitar and drums. 

Standouts were the aptly named "Unstoppable" and a cover of the Cure's first single, "Killing An Arab," inspired by "The Stranger," Albert Camus' 1942 novel of homicidal existential doubt set in colonial French Algiers.

On Sunday, Mama Afrika enjoyed a modicum of tuneful payback.

--Reed Johnson

Photo: Femi Kuti. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times