It may have been billed as “Soul of Africa,” but a better title for Sunday’s edition of KCRW’s World Music festival at the Hollywood Bowl would have been “Soul of Discretion,” as India.Arie and Yerba Buena were both understated to the point of invisibility.
Following a muted cover of John Phillips’ “California Dreaming” (including new lyrics celebrating the Bay area), headliner India.Arie set out what she described as her “mission statement”: a dedication to “expand healing love energy and peace through the conscious use of words and music.” Such sentiments usually send sane listeners rushing for the exits. Her lyrical concerns, filled with innocent children and pleas to “see with the eyes of your heart,” don’t help matters.
But her lovely voice and ingenious personality keep your interest. They’re matched by her lilting music, built around acoustic guitar and softly played percussion, which burbles like a pleasant brook but is gentle to the point of invisibility. She claims Stevie Wonder as a major influence, but it’s the new age Wonder of “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.”
Her version of “True Colors” floats on blissful harmonies, and “Video” is a bouncy call for acceptance of more than the standard definition of beauty. But for someone who aims for understanding and communication, she seems awfully willing to lyrically dismiss anyone who disagrees with her on “God Is Real.”
That’s still more emotional heat than was generated by the Fela tribute organized by Yerba Buena. Their debut album “President Alien” (Razor & Tie/Fun Machine) is one of this year’s most intriguing albums, an invigorating amalgam of Latin and African sounds. But at the Bowl, joined by Blackalicous, keyboardist Money Mark and bassist Meshell NdegeOcello, the music sounded tentative and earthbound. Experiments such as adding a reggae rhythm to “Colonial Mentality” were intriguing ideas that just didn’t work.
They were far from unlistenable (“Water No Get Enemy” built to a hypnotic climax), but in trying to pay their respects to the one of the 20th century’s most vital and emotionally charged musicians, the musicians made Fela sound polite. The songs may have been pulled from last year’s “Red Hot + Riot!” album, but live the music was tepid, and with the exception of NdegeOcello, who lent some of her personal intensity to “Gentleman,” and trumpeter Rashawn Ross, who brought some early ’70s Miles Davis funk to the proceedings, the band sounded unable to incite even themselves.