Kings & Queens of Marlin Gardens

Africa Fete gets on the global good foot

Africa Fete '94, a summer tour of dance-oriented global-beat bands put together by Island Records, features Caribbean zouk pioneers Kassav, electro-funk chanteuse Angelique Kidjo, and Ziskakan, a group of musicians from the East African island of Reunion who mixes Eastern melodies with rock rhythms. An Africa Fete compilation CD and a slick video already have been produced to promote the concert tour, booked for a dozen American venues, including New York City's Central Park Summerstage, the House of Blues in L.A., and the Fillmore in San Francisco.

Miami Beach's Marlin Gardens, where Africa Fete will touch down on Saturday (July 30), is considerably more modest, best remembered as the spot where the once infamous, now-extinct South Beach Sunday tea dance was held. Actually, the gardens are two valet parking lots located across Collins Avenue from the Marlin Hotel. On that improvised site, local organizers are preparing a monumental street party -- sort of an Afropop Lollapalooza -- with a drumming tent, African dance demonstrations, a Sengalese fire-eater, and African food and craft vendors.

"At first they were going to close off the space with a wire fence, like for chickens or something, and just have a concert," Montse Guillen clucks scoldingly. Guillen is the special-events coordinator for the Marlin Hotel and the hotel's Shabeen Restaurant, both owned by Island Records CEO Chris Blackwell. It was her idea to create what she calls an "African Village" in Marlin Gardens, enclosed by a wooden fence painted with murals by local artists and schoolkids. This, she says, better approximates the original inspiration for Africa Fete, conceived last year by Blackwell as a road-show spinoff of the African cultural festival of the same name held annually in Paris. In fact, Guillen claims that Miami is the only tour venue where Africa Fete really will be a festival, not just a concert.

Crews from ABC television and Canada's Much Music network have chosen to film the spectacle here instead of taping the Central Park concert. The Miami site also will be teeming with Island Records executives.

"Everybody's coming for this, because this concert is seen as the one," assures James Quinlan, cofounder of the Rhythm Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted primarily to world music that is coproducing Africa Fete with Island and the Marlin.

Accordingly, Guillen and the directors of the Rhythm Foundation have broadened the ethnic definition of the event to encompass elements from the local community's various African-rooted cultures. The Miami-meets-Africa setting created by a corps of local artists and technicians will be decorated with Jamaican banners, Caribbean landscapes, Haitian vodou symbols, urban graffiti, and just about any vaguely African motif. A Bahamian junkanoo parade will snake through the grounds, and world-music DJ Pierre ZonZon (of the club Bash) will spin ethnic beats before the show. The scheduled opening acts are local Haitian band Lorei Mystique, Sengalese percussion troop Kilimanjaro, and two a cappella gospel groups, Vision and Vashtique.

The local artists' emphasis on the culture of the African diaspora -- rather than that of Africa proper -- is in sync with the headline acts, who play a hybrid of sounds, mainly a mix of American dance beats with traditional African and Caribbean musics. While the combination in some form is typical of internationally successful contemporary African groups, this year's fete performers are not as strong as such well-known African artists as King Sunny Ade, Youssou N'Dour, and Salif Keita, all of whom have an individual style. In particular, Angelique Kidjo sings the kind of generic dance music often heard in clubs.

"If you want to see traditional music and exoticism, take a plane to Africa," Kidjo vehemently told The Beat magazine in a recent interview. "I'm not going to play traditional drums and dress like bush people," snapped the native of Benin, in West Africa, who now lives in Paris. "I'm not going to show my ass for any white man. I don't ask Americans to play country music."

Along with her rapper's attitude, Kidjo has a penchant for using drum machines, and her music often has been taken to task by Western music critics for its commercial sound. But Kidjo, who sings in her native language, called Fon, and the Nigerian Yoruba dialect, also has been acknowledged as the heir to celebrated vocalist Miriam Makeba by fans who say that her voice balances out any technological excesses.

More on the acoustic side is Ziskakan, a hippiesque eight-member band from Isle Reunion, near Madagascar. Dreadlocked leader Gilbert Pounia and backup vocalists sing in a Creole dialect that can sound like Arabic when heard in the context of the music's distinctly Eastern melodies. Ziskakan combines tabla drums, electric guitars, and keyboards with the island's traditional string and percussion instruments to create haunting, spiritual ballads.

For most Miami concertgoers the show's biggest attraction will be Kassav, the number-one band in the French Caribbean. Its founding members launched the Creole musical genre called zouk, which means "to party." This is dance music with a beat so inspiring that a critic described the audience at one of Kassav's concerts as "a single ecstatic orgasm." It combines Caribbean carnaval music and ritual anthems, American disco, and French pop with a jumping, skipping tempo. The band, whose members are originally from the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, is enormously popular in France and Africa. And while Kassav also rates high with Miami's Haitians, the group has not played here since 1987.

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