What does a lil’ ol’ boy from Forest Hills, Queens, know about the so-called dark continent? As Paul Simon has proven over the years, plenty. Simon has never posited himself as an ethno-musicologist, but his everyman approach to African forms has always worked in his favor, since he’s drawn attention to the inherent emotional similarities in the varied musical forms, rather than emphasize stylistic exotica.
That was clear throughout this concise two-hour program, which served as the bedrock for BAM’s annual gala — an event that drew an aud dominated by nonpartisans who readily responded to the immediately infectious sounds that emanated from the Harvey Theater stage on Wednesday night.
Simon was onstage for virtually the entire perf, but he wasn’t the focal point of every song. When he was, he evinced both fluid musicianship — not all that surprising to see — and a guileless joy that proved a bit more unexpected. He and his 10-piece band slithered through a slinky version of “Graceland” and sprinkled a copious amount of spice onto the aud fave “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
The man of the hour seemed perfectly happy, however, to cede the spotlight to a passel of guests who, by and large, furthered his vision with aplomb. Admittedly, David Byrne took things a bit too far into his own hermetically sealed universe for an overly stylized take on “You Can Call Me Al” that could’ve been a “Stop Making Sense” outtake, but the rest of the crew took Simon’s own vision and ran with it to a charming end.
South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela, for instance, used his natural-born pop instincts to create a smooth-yet-sizzling version of “The Obvious Child” (perhaps the best known of Simon’s African-imbued tunes). Brazilian-born singer Luciana Souza added a tinge of her country’s Afro-Caribbean tradition into an ethereally compelling take on “Further to Fly,” a more obscure tune of the same vintage.
The most interesting thing about the program was just how natural it felt. It would’ve been simple to just look for a way to pair the most visible African musicians with Simon’s best known songs, but the care used in putting the perf together said a lot about the way the artist views his own work — all of it good.