AP Entertainment Writer
MANCHESTER, Tennessee (AP) — The Bonnaroo Music Festival is large enough that it contains mini-festivals within itself. On Friday, one of the more vibrant and colorful stages was an African invasion.
The African-influenced North Carolina band Toubab Krewe got things started, before giving way to a genuine import: the bluesy, frenetic Malian guitarist “Vieux” Farka Toure.
The son of the late Malian legend Ali Farka Toure led the crowd in a chant in his native language, only afterward offering the translation: “Love is good.”
Next came Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate, the Malian kora player. They were followed by the Nigerian Juju performer King Sunny Ade, who played with his band African Beats.
To play later were Amadou & Mariam, the blind Mali couple of international renown, and Femi Kuti and the Positive Force. Like Toure, Kuti is the son of an African legend: the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.
When the African acts aren’t on stage, their influence on American rock can be heard in bands such as the Dirty Projectors and Yeasayer, who are also slated to play at the annual festival on a farm about an hour’s drive from Nashville
While musical styles can easily be shared, the cultural and political perspective of the African groups remains uniquely theirs.
The West African nations of Nigeria and Mali are very poor and are acquainted with government corruption. When Kuti set out for his current tour, the Nigerian government shut down the club he and a sister of his built in Lagos: the New Afrika Shrine. The club is named after his father’s Shrine, which served as a center of music and political defiance in the ‘70s.
Kuti has taken up his father’s political outspokenness, too.
“If we don’t have electricity, it affects me. If we don’t have good drugs, it affects me. If we don’t have a good heath care system, it affects me,” said Kuti in an interview. “Now, how can I not sing about these issues that are affecting me on a daily basis?”
“Why should I be singing about ‘Baby Don’t Go?’ Baby will go if you don’t have enough money to take care of her,” said Kuti. “The way we are going as a country and a continent, the average man will always lose his baby to a richer person. To sing ‘Baby Don’t Go’ is irrelevant from where I’m coming from.”
Kuti’s Shrine has since reopened. The government had said it closed the club in Lagos because of “noise nuisance, illegal street trading, indiscriminate parking, blocking of access roads and obstruction of traffic.”
Kuti believes the government closed the Shrine because of the political nature of new songs he has been writing. He says it was reopened because government officials feared he would draw international attention to its closing.
It’s easy to see that troubles at home can weigh on a touring musician. Kuti, a bandleader who plays saxophone, piano and trumpet, recently released the album “Day By Day,” on which he sings: “You better ask yourselves how the richest continent has got the poorest people.”
For Kuti — and so many talented musicians from Africa — it’s impossible to separate music from politics. Yet rare is the act from Africa who isn’t uplifting.
“I want the United States of Africa to unite,” said Kuti. “I need to see railroad lines going from north to south, east to west; highways, north to south, east to west; good health care system; free trade. I need to see the African people happy for once.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.