Review from The Live Music Report

Salif Keita + Toby Foyeh and Orchestra Africa
at the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival

June 29, 2008  Mainstage  Toronto

Soro Leaves as Papa Returns, Amen!
by Laila Boulos with photos by Roger Humbert

As the tent at Nathan Phillips Square was filling up, Ken Stowar, CIUT89.5FM’s Program Director and host of the station’s popular Sunday afternoon program, Global Rhythms, took to the stage to welcome the audience. He briefly introduced the first act, Toby Foyeh and Orchestra Africa whose music reflects many influences, such as Afrobeat, Latin, traditional Nigerian Yoruba, jazz, pop and rock creating a unique and infectious musical fusion.

As Mr. Stowar left the stage, Toby Foyeh and his Orchestra Africa took over. Wearing traditional garb topped with intricately folded hats, that looked like they came straight out of a master origami class, they looked like proud peacocks. Unfurling their rainbow-dipped wings, they filled the tent with hip-swiveling rhythms.

With a voice that conjured up Isaac Hayes on the “Theme from Shaft”, Foyeh informed the crowd that, “You can get down” as the conga player leapt to the front of the stage and suggestively wiggled his hips like a moon-walking belly dancer. Unfortunately, it was a bit too early to light a spark into the conservative crowd who at this point should have been going crazier than any moon-walking belly dancer.

Mr. Foyeh’s sense of humour came to the fore when, making light of the storm brewing outside the tent, he introduced the next song as “a traditional African song to beckon the rain Gods”. Without missing a beat, the three angelically dressed and heavenly voiced singers dove tongue-in-cheek into the refrain of “Rain, rain, go away” to laughter and cheers from an audience that was slowly warming up as the band broke into full carnival force.

At this point, a tribally clad man and woman screeched onto the stage kicking the audience into fith gear, as the first in a set of escalating competitions between dancers and musicians began. The thunderous drumming and feverishly gyrating dancers showered the audience with a spectacle of monsoon proportions and provoked a general standing ovation.

In an attempt to cool off the intensity, the band lunged into an Afrobeat piece, sprinkling in some Stanley Jordan jazz grooves and throwing along a generous handful of driving sultry keys. The temperature barely dropped.

Foyeh later spoke about their latest album, Lagos Riot, as the crowd yelped while focusing on the word ‘riot’. Toby laughed stating that “We’re not going to do that (riot) now. We’re just telling you about the album”.

They then launched into a piece from their earlier album Talking Drum. With roadrunner speed, the tempo spun itself into oblivion as the tribal dancers each jumped on the towering speakers on either side of the stage while the call-and-response of the drums reached turbo speed intensity.

Mr. Foyeh then began the next piece by pouring forth exhilarating, bird-like notes from his flute that were shattered intermittently with his own warrior cries. This contrast of flute, warrior cries and driving drum beat once more propelled the metamorphosed crowd onto their feet yelling and applauding.

For the final piece, Toby further charmed the crowd with, “My friends, come to dance” as he introduced “oremi, oremeo, the music of Africa”. Drunk with the stimulation of the performance, the hypnotized onlookers now filled the aisles and the area next to the stage, movin’ and agroovin’ as their previous conservative selves evaporated.

If this band, that made a fire pit of the tent, was the opening act, what would Salif do to the crowd??

Well, in no time, the stage had gone through its changeover and once again, Mr. Stowar announced the impending arrival of the next act, The Golden Voice of Africa, Salif Keita.

As Salif Keita’s band opened with seductive pentatonic rhythms layered over sultry guitar riffs and hypnotic beats, the crowd knew the party had not ended. It had just begun.

Two elegantly gowned and turbaned singers took over the vocals when suddenly a man, the first of many people, appeared on stage and began tossing money over Salif who appeared to ignore the proceedings.*

Although Mr. Keita had performed in Toronto only a year ago (at Harbourfront) the crowd’s reaction was as if he was a favourite relative who had not visited in decades.

Salif, in his gorgeous royal blue and gold-trimmed outfit and brown cap clowned around as he briefly raced and danced around the stage. Once again, an animated call-and-response ensued with the talking drum and Salif’s vocals eliciting the desired response: audience insanity.

Later, Salif began hypnotically strumming a guitar as if it was an African stringed instrument such as a kora. And, closing one’s eyes, it could have easily been a kora that he was strumming.

In one of the only times Salif spoke during the evening, he shyly asked the last of the stragglers to get up to dance announcing that it was his birthday. His birthday is actually August 25, 1949, but happy to comply, the remaining few got up and the tent became a crazier sea of flailing bodies.

For the final piece, Salif began scatting and singing as the bass player slowed down the tempo slightly by providing George Benson styled “Masquerade” grooves. This respite was short-lived as the piece sped up into what was to be the band’s final extended medley. Of course the crowd would not let Salif escape so quickly nor so easily and he obliged with two lengthy encores.

In a frenzied chain, people clamoured onto the stage, throwing money and competing with the dancers and drummers to see who could outlast who as the crowd cheered them on. Many were resplendent in their traditional, festive costumes. Undeterred by the heat, they leapt, clowned and spun around in good-natured dueling with the band members. In the very limited space, the kora player, not to be outdone, paraded around playing his instrument upside down and backwards.

Then, as if magically, the stage was suddenly swept of its Cat In The Hat circus, leaving only the drummers to have their heyday for an extended heart-pounding ear-cracking demonstration. It must have made Zeus, the Greek God of Thunder proud that these commanding drummers closed the evening to the sounds of torrential downpour from the skies.

* It is common in Africa, the Middle East and Greece, to toss money or to lick it and place it on the forehead of performers or to insert it into their costumes as tips. It is also considered a way for people to show off their wealth.