Nelson Mandela Day isn’t on any official calendars at this point in time, but the organizers of this year’s concert in honor of the nonagenarian civil rights giant are working overtime to ensure that state of affairs changes soon. This year’s event — held in North America for the first time — also marked the first time that 46664 (Mandela’s charitable organization) expanded things to include a full week of activities, ranging from an art exhibit at Grand Central Station to a gala dinner hosted by former president Bill Clinton.
The main event, however, was the concert, scaled down from its initial Madison Square Garden location last month, which managed to achieve accessibility without dumbing down. While the big names certainly did not disappoint — Aretha Franklin was particularly fiery in her performance of “Make Them Hear You” — the real knockout punches were delivered by unexpected sources.
France’s first lady Carla Bruni, for instance, teamed with Dave Stewart for a steely and stirring rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” — a particularly fitting selection to celebrate Mandela’s life — while Baaba Maal and Chris Chameleon eked a full spectrum of emotions from Ben Harper’s “With My Two Hands.” While those pairings brought together performers from relatively close quarters, it proved particularly intriguing to see cross-cultural boundary crossings like Alicia Keys and Angelique Kidjo’s “Afrika.”
African-based performers offered plenty of powerful perfs, notably saxophonist Sipho Mabuse, who brought down the house with the soulful “Shikisha.” Surprises also emanated from closer to home, a point emphasized by Cyndi Lauper and Lil’ Kim working through a medley of “Time After Time” and “Lighters Up” that found each woman tweaking the other’s tune with dexterity and love. The set ended on a warm note with Stevie Wonder leading the entire ensemble — and the aud — through a sweet rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The program, which was punctuated, but not hamstrung, by speeches, was webcast live worldwide. TV broadcasts are planned on a number of international platforms, including VH1 in the States and Canal Plus in much of Latin America.