Live: Blitz The Ambassador Reps For His Homelands At Lincoln Center
Blitz the Ambassador and Spoek Mathambo w/Mshini Wam
Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center
Sunday, August 7
Better than: An evening spinning old soul records.
"Don't forget that I'm from Ghana, yo. D'you know how far that is?" Samuel Bazawule, the Brooklyn-based MC better known as Blitz the Ambassador, may have been the only artist to rhyme that question at Lincoln Center last night. (Answer: "Ya' can't get to Accra drivin' a car, that is.") But each of the up-and-comers on the bill he headlined might easily have engaged in similar repping for their homelands. Doing so probably seems all the more important, necessary even, when your art makes good on the idea of diaspora in ways that at times bear little resemblance to what the average non-African might think is happening on the continent. Iyadede, the soul sister who was ending her set with a variation on Anita Ward's disco-era evergreen "Ring My Bell" when I walked in, hails from Kigali, Rwanda. For runner-up Spoek Mathambo (a futurist with a taste for electro and Joy Division who's newly signed to Sub Pop), the word, style and swagger are all Johannesburg.
Mathambo probably had the most to prove, and despite his music's incredible reach, some unease was bound to peek through. His band, Mashini Wam ("My Machine"), consists primarily of gadgetry twiddled and thrashed by two musician/programmers, cats whose skill at beat creation and ping-ponging textures are easier heard than seen on the big stageexcept perhaps when the one who goes by the name CHLLNGR visibly airs them out with deep gusts from tenor sax. Mathambo's an energetic performer, but music this rave-centric needs context when it's outside the clubs; thankfully, the evening's host, Shantrelle Lewis of the co-producing Caribbean Culture Center African Diaspora Institute, understood this. She shared the info that Mathambo's "Put Some Red On It" is about the trade in blood diamonds, which brought applause from the far reaches of the audience. (They might also have warmed to the fact that the words "mshini wam" are actually ripped from an African National Congress slogan about taking up arms.)
Mathambo closed with "Control," an unambiguously potent jam that has swiftly become his calling card beyond clubland; it's a gender-flipped rendering of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" that takes the original's how-low-can-you-go? bleakness literally, punching the subwoofer-level bass and divesting the lyrics of enough melodic lilt to turn them into hypnotic chant. Live, its Caribe-influenced stutter-step makes it a dancefloor natural, fashioned in South Africa for cosmopolitans the world over.
Blitz The Ambassador's horn-filled soul band hit the stage with so much polish that it coaxed folks into the aisles instantly. The MC is riding the wave of his breakthrough album Native Sun, which places his rapidfire delivery in a swirl of more heritage-based sounds than his first album's more straightforward mic-checking. By "heritage" I mean "from the motherland," of course, but I also realize that the expansiveness of the Ambassador's set worked pretty hard to confound that description by gathering wind from all of his background's compass points. A hip-hop fanatic since he was a pre-teen in Ghana, Bazawule's immigrant experience started a decade ago as an undergrad at Kent State. Consequently, when he says "I'm gonna show y'all where I come from" and launches into a medley that mixes up the Sugar Hill Gang, Rakim, Chuck D and Pete Rock, he means it as much as when he brilliantly mimics the radio voice of a dictator announcing a coup, or builds "Akwaaba," a rap in his native Akan, from the '70s grooves of his countryman K. Frimpong. And later, when he spits rhymes during a second medley that spins Fela, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango and Osibisa into Congolese soukous, it's a clear bid to turn all the Africa-heads into hip-hoppers and vice-versa.
Critical bias: Sometimes I think the "Afro" in "Afropop" should be more literal.
Random notebook dump: Damrosch Park audiences are an odd mix of the interested and the just-out-for-a-stroll inattentive. If you can win these folks over, you've clearly got a future.
Something to Believe
Kill the Radio
African Medley + Soukous
Accra City Blues
Best I Can