Out of Africa, into Piedmont Park

Femi Kuti, Zap Mama and Hugh Masekela highlight the continent's many sounds at the Montreux Atlanta Music Festival

Today's Africa seems to boast as many musical genres and subgenres as spoken languages. The continent churns out massive amounts of recorded product, mostly released on cassette, often sung with a beguiling mesh of three or more languages, sometimes all in one song. It is one of the barriers that, for the most part, keeps African artists off the American playing field. But as Western culture permeates the farthest reaches of the globe, the English language is changing the face of what used to be considered "world" music. And in the case of artists such as Femi Kuti, Zap Mama and Hugh Masekela — African-rooted artists all performing at the Montreux Atlanta Music Festival in Piedmont Park this weekend — it's opening new doors of commercial possibility and cultural understanding.

"When you hear about victimization in Africa, what Africans are doing to Africans," Femi Kuti says, "I think Americans say, 'Oh wow!' — they understand, and [are] more sympathetic to the problems."

For the politically charged Kuti, son of the late Nigerian pop superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti, communication is essential to both his commercial success on a global level and for continuing his family's legendary reputation for exposing government fraud and injustice through song. In the case of vocal group Zap Mama, led by Zairian-born Marie Daulne, the lyrics are more internalized; soul, heart and emotion are the most common topics. Jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, an artist who made inroads in American jazz and pop in the 1960s and '70s, sings and tells stories about South African culture when he's not playing his horn. Side by side, as they'll be this weekend in Atlanta, they're a cultural force for African music's exposure in the West.

The electric Femi Kuti burst onto the world music scene this past year with his American recording debut, Shoki Shoki; Full of funky, hip-shaking grooves mixed with tart political jabs and socially conscious lyrics, Shoki Shoki propelled Kuti to the top of the world music charts, earning him rank as the new king of Afro-beat — a position formerly held by his father, who virtually invented the genre. But Afro-beat, under his father's influence, consisted of long, extended rhythmic jams, often clocking in at 30 minutes or more. Kuti has condensed that sound into tight, explosive nuggets of sound.

Currently on a world tour, Kuti and his group Positive Force have earned a reputation for blistering, libidinous live shows. With Kuti handling both the tenor sax and lead vocals, and flanked by elaborately costumed backing vocalists and band, he is the spitting image of his father for a new, more globally conscious generation. And like his father, Kuti is an outspoken and charismatic ambassador for Nigeria's underclass. Through music, he delivers the hard truth about corruption, disease and injustice, as well as providing inspiration in songs such as "Blackman Know Yourself." In interviews, he answers questions about music with sharp jabs at African governments, the educational system and even President Clinton.

"Nigeria, and the whole African continent is in crisis," Kuti says. "No hospitals. No doctors. [A huge percent] of the African population has AIDS. When our leaders get sick, they go to Europe for treatment and leave their people to be killed by local doctors. Hunger, war, bad government. There's no motivation for people to be alive. Africa is such a wonderful place to be, and you wonder how [our] leaders can be so selfish."

When asked why he doesn't leave Nigeria for a more stable area, Kuti strongly replies, "I am a musician, and it is my responsibility to build inspiration for my people. My career, my family, my money, my whole life is devoted to rectify our problems." But through touring, speaking out and performing, he hopes to raise international awareness.

"I find black Africans around the world are more aware of African problems than Africans at home because they don't want to learn the truth about history," he says. "They're lost. They're vulnerable to misinformation. But now, it's time for Africans in America to look at African problems and pay attention."

Zap Mama's Daulne also searches for new, more globally aware audiences in the West. In fact, she recently relocated to the U.S. in hopes that her astonishing group can hit it big. "I want to create a new, interesting sound so that world music can have a future," she says. "It's my hope that I can create a new folklore for the urban world, so that a new generation can discover there's more than one way to think, more than one way to drink water and lots of different salts in the earth."

Initially conceived as an all-female a cappella ensemble, Zap Mama pushes their unique style beyond the confines of traditional ethnic music to become one of the first truly multicultural pop groups. Their critically acclaimed albums, including most recently Seven and A Ma Zone, combine jazz, R&B, hip-hop and drum 'n' bass with African rhythms and vocals for a sound that transcends today's codified genres. For this summer's Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack, Zap Mama updated the pop-gumbo of "Iko Iko" for new audiences.

But unlike Kuti, Africa's turmoil is far away from Daulne and her creative inspiration. "I was born in Africa but raised in Europe, in the urban world, and I can't think or sing like a typical African person," she says. "But I think Zap Mama helps push African culture farther. 'World music' is sometimes thought of as Third World music, and I don't like that. It's simply not true. I hope Zap Mama can present another image, another view of what world music is."

If Zap Mama and Femi Kuti are bold explorers of contemporary Afro-beat, then jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela is the granddaddy who helped open their window of opportunity. Most commonly recognized throughout the world for his gigantic instrumental hit, "Grazing in the Grass," Masekela is a pivotal jazz artist who was uniquely able to translate traditional African percussion, vocals and instrumentation to Western jazz.

Admired today as one of the first "world artists," Masekela's distinction was hard-earned. He fled the brutality of South African apartheid in 1960 after a handful of years backing local dance bands. Heavily influenced by old 78 rpm records by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and others, ambition carried Masekela first to England, before South African singer Miriam Makeba (to whom Masekela was married briefly in the '60s) persuaded Masekela to come to New York. Once in the U.S., he'd meet heroes such as Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as actor/singer Harry Belafonte, all of whom helped Masekela land his first record deal.

His groundbreaking live album, however, was almost never released. "The MGM president swore to me that the music was crazy," Masekela told Down Beat, "American people wouldn't go for it." But they did. In defiance of the label's resistance, Masekela named the record The Americanization of 'Ooga-Booga'. The cover was no less controversial, with Masekela wearing a corporate suit, carrying a briefcase in his left hand, standing barefoot on a rock in the African jungle. The music, which Masekela called "Township Bop," alternated between trumpet and voice, singing both in English and various ethnic tongues. The rhythm section crackled with Latin influences and African polyrhythms, while the piano increased the urgency with rhythmic vamps. The record soared, yelped and punched holes in the tapestry of American jazz.

By the early-'70s, Masekela had achieved world attention, selling out festivals and concert halls in addition to playing on some of Bob Marley's very first recordings. He then returned to Africa, recording a string of jazz albums with help from Fela Kuti and others. In 1985, he unexpectedly had to leave again after his friend George Phahle, and 14 others, were massacred by the South African Defense Force on the pretext of raiding "communist terrorist camps" manned by anti-apartheid activists.

Landing in England, Masekela created the Broadway musical Sarafina in the early '80s, and along with fellow South Africans Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Makeba, was a key musician for Paul Simon's Graceland album and tour. Following the fall of apartheid, Masekela returned home to South Africa, where he lives and records today.

Performing alongside an eclectic roster of Latin, hip-hop, reggae and rock acts in Piedmont Park this weekend, Kuti, Zap Mama and Masekela take their place not only as pivotal figures in the past and future of African pop, but as leading lights in the current music of the planet.

The Montreux Atlanta Music Festival is held in Piedmont Park, Sept. 2-4. Hugh Masekela performs Sat., Sept. 2, at 8 p.m.; Zap Mama perform Mon., Sept. 4 at 8 p.m.; and Femi Kuti peforms Mon., Sept. 4, at 9 p.m. Admission is free.??