The Apollo Theater in Harlem is a legendary venue. The careers of many an African-American artist has been launched here, so it is considered hallowed ground for good reason. With the growing popularity and reach of urban African music in America (finally!), it seems only appropriate that the Apollo Theater played host to a weekend of festivities titled Africa Now!, presented in association with the World Music Institute.
The objective was to showcase artists who have made an impact on the global music landscape. Any African music fan worth his salt has been well aware of the new generation of potential icons for quite some time, but it is great to see the rest of the world catching up.
The lineup for the main stage concert was South African afro-fusion band Freshlyground, Congolese singer-songwriter Lokua Kanza, Nigerian-German singer-songwriter-activist Nneka, and Ghanaian born rapper, Blitz the Ambassador. The host for the evening was the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised celebrity chef extraordinaire, Marcus Samuelsson.
Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground
Up first was Freshlyground with their upbeat, energetic style. Despite being pregnant – a fact that elicited tremendous applause when she announced it on stage - lead singer Zolani Mahola danced, grooved and shimmied with abandon. It was remarkable.
After the energetic opening set from Freshlyground, Lokua Kanza took to the stage and proceeded to dazzle the audience by singing effortlessly in Swahili, Lingala, French, Portuguese and English. No matter what language he sang in, he was emotive, charismatic and soulful, and the chemistry between him and his brother Didi Ekukuan, his daughter Malaika Lokua and Cameroonian singer Roselyne Belinga – who all joined him on stage - was spectacular.
Nneka before she roared
Then Nneka took the stage, and the Nigerian contingent in attendance let her know just how glad they were to see her: very glad. Nneka is an interesting artist. She comes on stage in a demure, unassuming manner, but the next thing you know she’s belting out those tunes. She is a giant on stage, and the transformation is a sight to behold. On this occasion she was backed by her full band, unlike the more stripped down acoustic set we covered at Joe’s Pub a few months ago.
With a full band, she had a more aggressive and full bodied sound. Whether this is more or less enjoyable than her stripped-down acoustic performances depends on who you’re asking. I personally prefer Nneka in a more stripped down, minimalist setting because this highlights her strongest feature, her voice. On this particular night, there were a few occasions when it sounded like that voice was on the verge of being drowned out by the cacophony from the other instruments. But this is Nneka, superb in any setting, and she was. I loved it when she spoke in pidgin, though I imagine some of the non-Africans in the audience must have felt left out.
It came as no surprise to hear the audience demanding an encore, but alas it was not to be. The sets couldn’t run longer than the schedule allowed as there were four acts jam-packed for the evening. So after a short intermission, the headliner Blitz the Ambassador took the stage.
"Have you ever seen a pilot rocking a Kufi before?" This was the question Blitz posed to the audience before telling everyone to buckle up, as he was about to take us on an an African-infused hip-hop journey. Aside from the fact that he has a horn section, it’s not common occurrence to see a rapper whip out a Djembe drum and a tambourine, but Blitz has never been your average rapper. From Public Enemy to Fela Kuti, Blitz’s songs were imbued with the spirit and influences of his personal heroes into his songs, and before the middle of his set the audience was on its feet. Blitz and his Embassy Ensemble band brought the house down, and you couldn’t really ask for more.
Horn section of the Embassy Ensemble band
It was gratifying to witness the success of the first edition of Africa Now!, and if this inaugural show offers any indication, it could be the beginning of an ongoing series.
I would like to thank Cynthia Tate and the rest of the Apollo Theater staff for accommodating This is Africa and granting us access to cover this event.