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.