By Andrea Whiting
Given that it was Father's Day and the dude half-responsible for my existence loves live music, I decided to bring my dad along to the season's first KCRW World Festival.
And via this ploy to beat out my little sister for the Best Daughter Award, Kevin Whiting and I inadvertently became a perfect sampling of the two stereotypes in attendance at the Hollywood Bowl last night: finely-aged, world music-friendly WASPS and twenty-something hipsters hungry for some Yeasayer.
But while the Bowl's programmers successfully lured me in with the promise of Pitchfork-approved Brooklyn psych-pop, Yeasayer's sample-heavy vibe just didn't get me dancing as much as music from a tad further east, courtesy of Mali musical rebels Tinariwen and headliner/Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal.
As a California native fresh out of undergrad, I'll be the first to admit my exposure to world music comes most often via Anglo interpretations (when I first heard Vampire Weekend I knew well enough to recognize a playful update of Paul Simon's Graceland, etc.) So if the Bowl curates these concerts to shed light on contemporary musical DNA, then Sunday's lineup reveals an obvious narrative: music from and influenced by that continent where soccer is suddenly really popular.
The night began with a band best described by a series of contradictions. Wearing mostly white, with colorful sneakers and bright red bongos providing the only bursts of color, Fool's Gold is local to L.A. but global in their influences, heavy on foreign fusion but easily accessible in their pop sensibilities, and familiar-feeling even though their vocals are sung in a foreign tongue (Hebrew). “Surprise Hotel” stands out as a particularly fun, summery blend of Afro-pop with maybe a side of Salsa, though I was disappointed that the cheeky grandpas and giant lizard of its video counterpart didn't make it to the stage.
And for a complete inverse of the equation, next up came Tinariwen, a group of African musicians in brightly colored, traditional garb playing what sounds like American rock 'n' roll. Fresh from playing the World Cup's opening concert, the self-described “legendary poet guitarists” were once rebel fighters in the southern Sahara desert, though you might not guess it from their live performance. Though they hail from a violent history, their music is warm, peaceful even. It contains all the elements of traditional American blues and seems to draw upon the same pool of emotions, nostalgia and melancholy, but with added chants and heavier drums.
Let it be known and reiterated that I adore Yeasayer, but after Tinariwen's organic African music, Yeasayer's electro-based sound felt a bit sterile on that big, blank stage. I was curious if, given the context of KCRW's curatorial role, the boys would emphasize the world influences found in their music. As was the case when Yeasayer Coachella, they've added an extra drummer to their live show, which gives necessary live punch to songs like “Sunrise.” Other than that, it wasn't clear that the band connected with the audience, perhaps because the mostly older crowd didn't quite get what those Brooklyn kids were doing fiddling with all those knobs. At least, this was my dad's complaint — a valid concern in translating electronic-steeped music to a live show. Samples and distortion are great, but from the nose-bleeds, it just looks like some dudes doubled up over toys.
They played an excellent rendition of “O.N.E,” which is a solid halfway point between Yeasayer's soulful debut All Hour Cymbals and the futuristic Odd Blood. But all that awesome '80s synth and shimmering highlife guitar has nowhere to go without the presence of a dance floor — and disco lights alone does not a dance floor make. I still love you, Yeasayer, and I adore you, Hollywood Bowl, but you're probably better off without each other.
As the sun finally set and the evening turned cool, musicians from the Playing for Change project rolled out and heated things up a bit. They performed a couple of Bob Marley and Brian Wilson-indebted songs about keeping worries away and having good vibrations, and if their songwriting wasn't exactly brilliant, their warm personalities more than made up for that. Grandpa Elliott was a cartoon character come to life — I'm not sure if it's politically correct to say he reminded me of someone from Song of the South, but Grandpa is a black dude with a bright white beard, round glasses, overalls, a sun hat and a harmonica. See photos for proof.
And as soon as the Change group finished up a rousing sing-a-long of “Stand By Me,” a drum beat came out of nowhere, eventually matched by Massamba Diop prancing through the aisles in a purple tunic-and-pant set, wreaking havoc with his talking drum. People didn't seem to realize he was not Baaba Maal until Baaba himself wandered onstage in a less neon outfit exuding even more swagger. He's an international superstar for a reason. He commands the audience, telling lovely stories about composing music underneath the shade of mango trees, compelling every hardened Angeleno to look up and examine the moon because “we are all connected on this planet.”
A highlight from the set was “Television,” the first single off his new album of the same name, which explores TV's effect in his mother country and continent. It's mellow at first, featuring rolling drums that set a walking pace and build up with Baaba's trademark vocals. There is urgency in his voice as he sings “Senegal!” and “Africa!” eventually ending with more of a question mark than a real conclusion.
Throughout the set, he continued to weave more and more influences into his music, including Latin keys (Samba maybe?), steel drums, all sorts of maracas and shakers, a handful of drums in different shapes and sizes, and a hoddu (an oval-shaped stringed instrument from West Africa, sort of like a guitar).
It seems like every new band tries its hand at world music, and given that the Internet makes global communication so effortless, it has become much trickier to define what “world” means. M.I.A steals from a thousand decades and genres, Lady Gaga is straight out of Ibiza, while Animal Collective samples every sound imaginable. But it's refreshing to experience something as completely authentic and raw as Tinariwen and Baaba Maal. And sometimes the best way to get out of the city is to drive straight into Hollywood to enjoy some bright night skies and worldly music in the middle of this manic melting pot.