3 Ecstatic Nights of African Virtuosos: Salif Keita, Noura Mint Seymali, African Guitar Summit

by Tom Nguyen

This past month, we were treated to not one, not two, but THREE nights in a row of world-class musicianship from Africa and her diaspora! In recent years, there have been a lot of international acts cancelled at the last minute due to visa issues, especially from Africa. In this even tougher climate of strict travel bans affecting many musicians, like at the recent SXSW festival, it just seems incredibly fortuitous to have so much great African talent visiting Southern California in one week: Salif Keita at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, Noura Mint Seymali at Caltech‘s Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena, and African Guitar Summit at the Aratani Theatre as part of the annual Aratani World Series in Little Tokyo.

First up was a relaxing road trip south to see legendary Salif Keita. He only had this show and another in San Francisco announced, with a pending Los Angeles date that never materialized. We left Los Angeles in the afternoon to make sure we avoided rush hour traffic for the hour and a half drive down to the Belly Up Tavern and let me tell you, it was well worth it!

It was my first time at the Belly Up, a live music institution in San Diego county since 1974! Unassuming on the outside, and gorgeous the moment you step in, its half moon shaped high ceiling recalls its origins as a US Navy prefabricated building during World War 2. From the friendly staff, to its polished wood bars, floors and stage, to its walls adorned with art work of generations of musicians who’ve played, there is a welcoming and unpretentious vibe here as well as an aura of storied musical history in this intimate venue. DJ Glenn Red, of Afro Funke and La Junta, who I carpooled with, recalled his early formative years in the 90s as a music lover and concert goer, seeing Erykah Badu and many others there, before they became big stars.

The King Salif Keita is here!!! @bellyuptavern ???

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Opening for Salif Keita was a local band led by Monette Marino, who’s just as adept on the djembe as she is on the congas and led an equally talented ensemble of musicians mixing African, Afro-Latin, Caribbean and rock grooves that got the crowd on their feet immediately! Then Salif Keita came on stage and really, the rest of the night was a blur of joy, dance and just being bathed in the presence of an unassuming legend whose penetrating voice carries you on a journey and pierces your soul.

He sang songs spanning his career, backed by a stellar band consisting of a guitarist, drummer, percussionist, 2 backup singers and a kora player, who at one point played while crawling on his back on the floor and then behind his back! That’s the kind of next level caliber of musicianship that was on display throughout the whole night! The most powerful and intimate moment though was the one song Salif Keita played alone on stage. When stripped down to just his distinctive voice and acoustic guitar is when I can really feel the emotional depth of his music and why he’s called the Golden Voice of Africa.

Why Salif Keita called The Golden Voice…pierces my soul? #salifkeita #acousticguitar @bellyuptavern

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I will never forget the moment towards the end of his show when he beckoned my partner and I and anyone else who wanted to climb onstage to dance with him and his band! His manager told me they hope to return in August to play Los Angeles, and next up at the Belly Up are 2 favorites of mine, Tinariwen and Dengue Fever, playing this Thursday, March 30, before they head to Los Angeles at the Fonda Theatre on Friday, March 31.

Round 2: Noura Mint Seymali played at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena, another venue I was discovering for the first time. It was a beautiful moonlit night for a visit to the campus landmark, with gorgeous round architecture and gleaming white pillars. I’ve been following Noura Mint Seymali from Mauritania since I first saw them in 2014 at Skirball Cultural Center and their music is infectious! Noura Mint Seymali plays the ardin, a traditional harp played by women, and sings in the tradition of Moorish griots.

Mauritania is at the crossroads geographically and socially between North and Sub-Saharan Africa and that uniqueness of so many influences can be heard with Noura Mint Seymali’s music. They played songs mostly from their new second album Arbina released in September 2016, which continues their very hypnotic and frenetic mixture of traditional and modern: her tinny, sharp harp strings meshing with her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly’s rousing electric guitar, and completing their sound with two talented musicians on western drum kit and bass, this show was more rock-driven and funkier than the three times I’ve seen them previously!

The less than capacity crowd more than made up for it with its enthusiasm as folks got up to dance nonstop throughout the show. A true testament to how magnetic and crowd pleasing their music is was the group of Polytech high school students who told me they’d never heard of Noura’s music before or anything like it yet they couldn’t help dancing to it. Noura Mint Seymali just inspired a young generation of new world music fans that night and Caltech offers an eclectic series of performing arts like this to excite curious minds. Next up: BELLA GAIA, a live multi-media theater experience that communicates—without words—the BEAUTY of the planet both natural and cultural (BELLA), and the INTERCONNECTNESS of all things on Earth (GAIA) on Saturday, April 15.

Last but not least: African Guitar Summit played at the Aratani Theatre as part of the annual Aratani World Series. Ghanaian gyil master, SK Kakraba, based in Los Angeles, played a pre-show outside the theater to get the evening started and then African Guitar Summit took to the stage. The ensemble consists of 5 African-born virtuoso musicians living in Canada: from Guinea, guitarist Alpha YaYa Diallo and Naby Camara on electric bass and balafon; from Madagascar, guitarists Donne Roberts and Madagascar Slim; drummer Kofi Ackah from Ghana.

Together, the musicians seamlessly combine the musical traditions of their East and West African roots as well as incorporating blues, folk and rock they have been influenced with throughout their international music careers. The guitarists took turns introducing each song and its meaning and playing lead, and I loved the visuals that celebrated Africa in pictures along with English translations of the lyrics for the audience. My favorite moments were when the 3 guitarists would jam out and each musician allowed to shine in their solos.

Bless the Aratani Theatre staff for letting those of us who couldn’t stay in our seats dance in the aisles and thank you to Aratani World Series for bringing this group to Los Angeles! You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of African Guitar Summit. They don’t have a website nor any social media presence, even though they’ve won multiple awards collectively and individually. If it wasn’t for the vision and curatorial taste of Aratani World Series producer, Judy Mitoma, we would not have the pleasure of lesser known but no less talented performers on the world stage.

Anuradha Kishore Ganpati, the series’ publicist and emcee, says they strive to present performers that no one else in Los Angeles is presenting. The world music and cultural arts scene is no different from the broader music industry: there can be a tendency to book the most popular acts every other cultural arts org in every major city is booking while other worthy international and local cultural groups go unnoticed. Thankfully, Aratani World Series is THAT platform for elevating cultural voices that often go unheard, and it’s the latest incarnation of World Festival of Sacred Music, which was inspired by the Dalai Lama to bring people together in an intercultural, inter-ethnic and interfaith celebration.

The Aratani World Series is produced in partnership with the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) whose Aratani Theatre, Japanese garden and programming and exhibits are hidden gems in the heart of downtown LA. JACCC is passionate about being an inclusive, welcoming and socially conscious space for the community, hosting recent events like a vigil in solidarity with the Muslim American community and the annual FandangObon, celebrating solidarity between the African American, Japanese American, and Mexican American communities.

We’re proud to support these organizations through our grassroots promo company CultureGap.LA and can’t wait for the next show this Saturday, April 1: RETURN TO MYANMAR with Kyaw Kyaw Naing Ensemble, celebrating traditional Burmese drums and gongs with Kyaw Kyaw Naing, a master musician who’d lived in exile because of the military dictatorship, and finally now able to play freely with eight of Burma’s greatest musicians of the rarely heard Saing-Waing orchestra.

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