The ceaselessly imaginative World Festival 2002 at the Hollywood Bowl thrives upon seemingly off-the-wall matches between acts that turn out to be surprisingly interrelated. Its “World Roots” program tried to pull off the same trick Sunday night — and though there was lots of energy and synergy in the air, the show probably peaked a bit too soon.
The idea, presumably, was to set two veteran pioneers in their fields — the great South African flugelhornist/singer Hugh Masekela and Spanish Harlem’s Latin jazz piano virtuoso Eddie Palmieri — in the company of two young, vibrant, polyglot, street-savvy bands from both coasts that use classic influences in new ways. Being the name attractions, Masekela and Palmieri went on last, but musically, it might have been better had they gone on first and laid out some of the roots of what the kids mix and mess around with.
New York’s Yerba Buena and L.A.’s Ozomatli were an uncanny match, in that both 10-piece bands play wildly eclectic, totally unclassifiable goulashes of African, Cuban, hip-hop and other ingredients at high energy levels. Yet each act has its own distinctively different signature: The tightly rehearsed Yerba Buena has the hard-edged flavor of the streets of New York, while Ozomatli is rowdier, more political, more at home in the vast Bowl.
Yerba Buena was at its best when it found the Saturday-night spirit of the old Latin boogaloo in a number simply called “Boogaloo,” while it went off on some strange tangents in “Rompe el Cuero.” Ozomatli brought the evening to peaks of energy on tunes such as “Eva,” which combined folk-like strummed guitar with turntable scratching and a zapped trombone. Like guerrilla fighters, their entrances and exits through the aisles made the point that they come from the people and merge back into the people; indeed, they kept on playing for the folks in the benches well into intermission.
By contrast, the headliners seemed like mellow elder statesmen, with Masekela knocking out still-durable hits like “Stimela,” “Grazing in the Grass” and the now-nostalgic Nelson Mandela rouser “Bring Him Back Home.” Palmieri offered some old-fashioned cha-cha and salsa with a few mildly adventurous piano solos. Tentatively at first, they tried a pair of duets that eventually produced some meaningful exchanges, but there was little time for more, as Masekela ran off to catch a plane back to South Africa.