The exuberance and charisma of Baaba Maal was a much-needed pack of adrenaline at Sunday’s 3 1/2-hour African music festival. Were it not for the Senegalese singer’s exemplary show of percussion, dancing and costumes, the evening would have sagged under the weight of foreign language troubadours whose messages were lost on the crowd that packed every nook and cranny of the California Plaza.
Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe and the cross-cultural collaboration between Taj Mahal and Mali’s Toumani Diabate — it’s called Kulanjan — had their moments, yet felt less than inspired and even out of sorts. Neither act lived up to the quality of their new discs: Mtukudzi, whose “Tuku Music” appears on Putumayo, settled into a folk groove with his acoustic guitar and seven-member troupe that suffered from too much sameness of spirit until his closing numbers, among them “Ndima Ndapedza,” which showed his affinity for spry dance music in the southern African tradition.
Mahal, who began his band’s 55-minute set by stating they were headed back to 1235 A.D. for a musical source, began in duet with his steel guitar and a troupe member’s antecedent of the banjo on “Catfish Blues,” pleasantly marrying two rural styles from two continents. After that, with the arrival of an eight-member band that showcased Diabate on the kora, a 21-string lute-like instrument, the music turned into a hypnotic collection of clinks, clacks and shimmering metal, much of it slow and moody. The extended vocal lines approached rapture, but felt disembodied from the accompaniment; only when Mahal ventured into the funky style of hunter music, wassoulou, did it recall the cultural give-and-take that makes Kulanjan’s disc on the Hannibal label an inviting listen.
To close the evening, Maal’s act entered the stage possessed. A trio of drummers fortified Maal’s introduction with a whirling demonstration of polyrhythmic bliss. The 12 members of the band progressively took the stage until Maal, with the deportment of superstar, stepped to the microphone and delivered otherworldy singing.
Here there was no language barrier. Where Mtukudzi’s socially charged lyrics required translation and Kulanjan needed a more coherent infrastructure, Maal tapped into a melange of African elements, taking the roots of yela rhythms and applying Western instrumentation to his personal hybrid of Mali, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Maal is a magnanimous performer — this was his second well-received visit to downtown’s California Plaza — and his music makes a viscerally potent statement for music without boundaries.