Ticket Giveaway: Ensemble ACJW at National Sawdust TONIGHT
Preview: Big Ears Festival 2016

Africa Now! at the Apollo Theater

by Steven Pisano

Mokoomba at the Apollo Theater(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The Africa Now! music festival, which just wrapped up it's fourth year at the Apollo Theater, aspires to provide American audiences with a tasting menu of current trends in African music. Of course, the problem in general with music showcases (i.e., SXSW, CMJ, etc.) is that sometimes a nibble just isn't enough. Often, groups are just hitting their stride when out trots the smiling emcee to introduce the next act.

Alsarah and the Nubatones, a Brooklyn-based band with origins in Sudan, played a silky smooth, jazz-inflected set that would have connected better with an audience in a midsize venue. Occasionally, she let out a sudden roof-raising belt that sent shivers through the audience, but most of the songs mixed gentle jazz rhythms with folk-style vocals, all strained through an East African filter.

Alsarah and the Nubatones at the Apollo Theater

It was left to Mokoomba, from Zimbabwe, to shake the Apollo audience to its feet and get them dancing in the aisles. In songs like "Masangango," the six young men of Mokoomba were for me the highlight of the evening, with catchy riffs, head-bobbing jams, and joy-filled dance moves. Lead singer Mathias Muzaza has the kind of magnetic power to draw you in and follow him wherever he goes with a song. I was surprised to learn that although Mokoomba widely tours the world, they are relatively unknown in Zimbabwe due to the fact that they sing in the unfamiliar Tonga language.

Jojo Abot, originally from Ghana, performed in stage lighting so dim, it looked like she was in a cave. Indeed, with her long red clothes, golden headdress, and sparking sequins on her face, she appeared like a shaman conjuring spirits. Yet, of all the night's performers, Abot had the most universal pop sound.

Jojo Abot at the Apollo Theater

If you've ever wondered where the legacy of guitar wizards of olden days in rock and blues have gone, look no further than Bombino, who hails from a nomadic Tuareg tribe in Niger. To American ears, Bombino's singing is almost besides the point (even beyond the fact that few people understand Tamasheq). But listen to that guitar wail! Often compared to guitar legends like Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bombino most reminded me of Carlos Santana. But of course, Bambino plays with his own style, all the more enjoyable because of how much fun you can see registered on his face as he fingers the strings and ride those grooves like a wave. If guitars are your thing, check out one of his many tour dates across America during the month of April before he heads off to Europe for a full month of dates in May.

(More photos can be found here.)

Bombino at the Apollo Theater