The annual Africa Fete tour ensures American world-beat audiences a sunny dose of stylin' Afropop entertainment. Proffering its most inspired triple bill to date, this year's event features Senegalese headliner Baaba Maal, stateside blues hero Taj Mahal's new group Kulanjan — with Malian kora master Toumani Diabete — and Zimbabwean bandleader Oliver Mtukudzi.
On Live at the Royal Festival Hall, international superstar Baaba Maal shows why he's such a popular figure on the world-music scene. Drawing from both American (electric guitars, horn section, keys) and traditional (kora, hand drums) influences, he puts on an exuberant live show with his big band, Daande Lenol (“Voice of the People”). At its best, the music mixes hypnotic grooves and sultry melodies. At its most lightweight, when siesta-friendly acoustic guitar riffs and downy keyboard filler subsume the fiery percussion exchanges, Maal the frontman still comes across as a convincing charmer. Particularly exciting are the beat-heavy moments, when he'll lead a dance troupe through an aerobic series of marionettelike moves that make Michael Jackson and MC Hammer look like shoe-gazers.
Kulanjan, the unusual union of rural blues guitarist Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabete, widely acclaimed innovator on West Africa's 21-string, harplike kora, sounds like a homecoming on the group's self-titled debut, recently co-issued along with Diabete's gorgeous dual-kora album with Ballake Sissoko, New Ancient Strings. A virtuoso who likes to experiment with cultural hybrids, Diabete plays off Taj Mahal's characteristic country blues (“Queen Bee,” “Catfish Blues”) with in-the-pocket, pianolike accompaniment and breathtaking dissonances that wash over the down-home fingerpicking and carry the soulful harmonies all the way from the Delta to the motherland.
Nestled somewhere between South African jive pop and the old-school Jamaican version of American R&B, Oliver Mtukudzi's Tuku Music serves up luminous hip-swaying grooves that go down smooth like a lungful of cool smoke from an icy water pipe.
Africa Fete takes places on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 8 p.m. at the Warfield, 982 Market (at Sixth Street), S.F. Tickets are $22.50-25; call 775-7722.