Following performances that expanded the reach of the Portuguese fado and showcased the vitality of South African township jive, Lauryn Hill tried on a transition from hip-hopper to folk singer that came off too agenda-driven and musically monotonous to generate an audience buzz like that created by the other acts. Clearly, two acts embrace the “global” portion of the bill’s title; one understands “diva.”
Seated and exuding little of the star power hinted at with her Grammy-winning 1998 disc “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” the former Fugees singer relied on songs from her two-CD “Unplugged” set (Columbia), an intriguing recording marred by between-song rambling that the singer seems to think is weighty philosophy yet consistently goes nowhere. She opened with “Mr. Intentional,” and with it came the beginning of her barrages — against lovers, partners, “the system” — that, an hour and 15 minutes later, had worn down many in the nearly soldout house. While her voice remains a spectacular jewel, it alone could not overcome the preachy tone of the lyrics combined with all-too-similar chord structures and the occasional overbearing drumming.
The Mahotella Queens, three South African singers together since 1964, have regrouped since the 1997 death of their leader Malathini, “the lion of Soweto.” Without his gravelly growl to anchor the act, which also has been hurt by the death of guitarist Marks Mankwane and producer West Nkosi, the Queens spring forth with a wholly uplifting sound that stays focused exclusively on their three-part vocalizing, with little spotlight on the dramatic trebly guitar lines indigenous to South African music.
That musical style was popularized by Paul Simon on “Graceland,” and more than once a “Graceland”-esque bass line could be detected. It locks in and rides a distinctive groove that’s almost like a tape loop in its hypnotic repetition. Western ears expect a sudden shift, a hook, for example, that never comes, adding to the deep intensity of this celebratory music. Four songs from their recent reunion disc “Sebai Bai” appeared in their 45-minute set, yet only “Dlhaya Mhunu,” an odd mix of garage rock and reggae, really stood out. A slow gospel number, “Jesus, What a Wonder,” was oddly out of place.
Mariza, Mozambique-born and Lisbon-raised, has taken the dark and reflective Portuguese fado and blended it with a world of outside influences. Most significantly, she and bandleader bassist Ricardo Cruz have brought a host of tempos to the mostly tranquil style. Add to that her flair for the dramatic — performing the encore without amplification, for one — and clearly the promise suggested on her one recording, “Fado em Mim” (Times Square), is just a starting point for what should be a long and rewarding career. She, like the Mahotella Queens, addressed the audience in English and explained bits and pieces of her music, sung mostly in Portuguese. Her 35-minute show clearly crossed the language barrier as a standing ovation led to a rare, opening-act encore at the Bowl.