November 15, 2005

Never before has cultural diversity made hips gyrate so passionately (from November 16 issue of the Yukon News)

African Guitar Summit is a band best enjoyed through your ears, body and feet, yet one truly understood cerebrally, through history.

But somehow it all sounds delicious.

“It’s like a perfect circle” of cultures, explains one of Summit’s guitarists, Mighty Popo, from his home in Ottawa.

“The whole thing boils down to the fact that we’ve been exposed to Western music,” adds Theo Boakye, the band’s singer, known for his “golden” voice.

“We’ve lived here for quite a while, so we’ve got Western influences. It’s a give and take situation.”

Unlike many instruments in African music, the guitar is relatively new and only began making an impact there in the 20th century, says Popo.

Players have adapted the instrument to their traditional African music — the same traditional music that inspired much of the Western guitar music now influencing the guitarists in African Guitar Summit.

If you’re head’s spinning on this whirlwind, the best example connecting all the cultural dots is Cuban rumba music.

Derived from the music African slaves brought with them the New World in the late 1800s, its core rumba rhythm is now within much of the salsa music popular today.

Somehow, the supergroup of musicians that is African Guitar Summit brings that whole historical lineage together, effortlessly.

“When you marry the styles, it becomes obvious they really have the same roots,” says Popo, who played the Dawson City Music Festival in 2001.

“The root is the rhythm.”

In 2004, CBC Music label producer Todd Fraracci dreamed of creating a collective of his favourite African-Canadian guitarists.

The idea resonated with Popo and many of the other players Fraracci spoke with, and African Guitar Summit was born.

So was commercial success.

The band won the 2005 Juno award for Best World Music album for their self-titled debut, and played at this summer’s Live8 benefit concert in Barrie, Ontario.

Their songs have also hit top 20 lists in some European countries, says Fraracci.

Along with Popo, who is originally from Rwanda and Burundi, the group features guitar players Alpha YaYa Diallo from Guinea, DonnĂ© Robert from Madagascar, Pa Joe from Ghana, Professor Adam Solomon from Kenya, and Madagascar Slim from … well, you figure it out.

(Unfortunately, Slim won’t be in Whitehorse for Thursday’s show.)

Vocalist Boakye and percussionist Kofi Ackah are from Ghana and Naby Camara from Guinea adds musicality with the balafon, an instrument similar to the xylophone, says Popo.

The musical gel binding the radically diverse members of the Summit together is the guitar.

“Of course when people think of Africa, they think drum, drum, drum,” says Popo.

“You can’t take away the drum, which is the first way of communicating, of uniting. But the guitar is really unique in Africa, because it has brought a different way of actually thinking about music.”

Several of the band’s guitarists bring Western jazz, blues and flamenco guitar styles to their playing and then apply those touches to their traditional African music, says Boakye.

The result is a hybrid based on tradition, but that allows for jamming and improvisation.

“It’s sweet African music. You can dance to it for sure,” says Popo.

A base structure — say a Malagasy style from Madagascar — lays a foundation for a song, and players add in only if they can compliment the root, says Popo.

“In Africa, if two people are dancing or they’re playing the drum, you don’t want to do what the other guy’s doing,” he says.

“You always have to compliment.”

African music usually features three guitar players, all with set roles, says Popo.

The players jump in only if they can “sweeten” the sound, he says.

“It’s really about the ear. Any good musician can play with anybody as long as they have the ear to know not to disturb what’s being played.

“It’s just about understanding and respecting the music. You feed off each other, you build on each other; you compliment each other.”

Dave Haddock & First Lung open for African Guitar Summit at the Yukon Convention Centre Thursday, and are set to take the stage at 7:30 p.m.

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