Musiq's opener for the night is also a modest entertainer. Skillz (from Virginia) formerly known as Mad Skillz, is an extremely talented freestylist. That's how he got his first deal, but he has also been cashing in on the ghostwriting tip for a while. Skillz says, "It's been a good past couple of years as far as ghostwriting is concerned. I have done a lot of things that keep people in tune to the streets. It just boils down to being a good writer. Being able to see people's different perspectives." He doesn't mention the names of the people he writes for because it might "jeopardize our relationship."
He has been known to open the can during a show "if I feel the vibe," Skillz notes. The Ritz show didn't carry that vibe for him, mainly because the audience didn't really know who he was--at least until they heard him do "Ya Favorite Joints." The crowd got hype when they heard Skillz flip the script with his tongue twisting word plays. Skillz ended his three-song set with his latest "Crew Deep." This is the first single off his new album Ain't Mad No More, which features production by The Neptunes, Timberland, Knots and Fusion along with appearances by Musiq, Missy, The Superfriends and Cee-lo. A Skillz album has been much anticipated for some time, as he has floated from label to label making bootlegs to official bangers. Ain't Mad No More is exactly what it is. He isn't mad no more--in fact he is quite pleased with his new home at Rawkus Records. Skillz says of Rawkus, "So far so good. They haven't done anything bad yet. I have nothing but good things to say about them."
And, of course, Skillz is happy about touring with Musiq, who's one of the biggest artists on earth right now. On stage Musiq has a DJ, a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist, a guitarist and two backup singers (male and female). Musiq's band was on point the whole evening--especially when they perfectly pumped out flawless riffs from songs that get over 30 spins a day. The band was motivated by Musiq's powerful yet professional performance, as the crowd was moved and captivated. When Musiq sang "A Girl Next Door" with backup singer Trina Ferebee, the crowd went nuts. The single girls started hating, but even they couldn't deny the harmonious duet. As Musiq performed his heart-wrenching "Half Crazy" the air was so still you could cut it with a knife. The highlight was a 20-minute jam session that could only be considered nothing less than super fly as it morphed itself into "Caught Up." And of course Musiq's latest ultimate love song, "Best Friend," had the crowd swaying like a gentle rolling sea.
By the end of Musiq's set, his shirt had changed color and was three pounds heavier with sweat. When I got a chance to talk to the soulchild, I asked him why he was so "badass." He replied, "That's how my momma made me. I just try to be the best at what I do. I am not claiming that I am the best, but I just try to do my best." He really cares, and it is obvious through his fans. "I know I have an audience to entertain. I am very conscious of what they want. At the same time I am conscious of what I want. So it's a lot of juggling back and fourth. But it really turns out right." It certainly does and he deserves all that he has and all that he is going to receive.
Wednesday, Oct. 9 Page Auditorium, Duke University
The stage is too small. It should be open here and dust should fly there when the women kick up their feet and move their arms and gyrate, this way--that. There should be no seats here and one should be able to smell cassava and grass and earth when this man sings and the "moffou" unwelcomes the birds ...
Duke University's Page Auditorium is reasonably full tonight, in this modest space too small for a petite man as big as Salifou Keïta. Keïta, "The Golden Voice of Mali," who is performing as part of Duke Institute of the Arts' "Living Traditions" series, makes his entry alone, in a simple, neutral-colored top, parachute pants and white sneakers. He kneels, humbly greeting the audience with a kiss and takes his seat with a guitar. It appears Keïta has a prearranged agreement with this instrument, that when he calls (strums), the music answers (sings). He begins with the melody to Iniagige--sans words--and the music is an envelope of color, tone and emotion. When he does sing, he only opens his mouth and the words, themselves, tumble out into song.
Born in Djoliba, Mali, the 52-year-old Keïta is a descendant of the puny, paralyzed prince, Sounjata (Sundiata) Keïta, who later became the fearsome warrior king, who founded the powerful Malian empire in the 13th century. This tradition of defying expectation runs in the family. The albino Keïta was ostracized as a youngster, as Malian superstition supposed that albinos held evil powers. Keïta grew up a loner, wandering the countryside, where the music of bird and baboon were his vocal teachers. He soon developed a passion for the music of the lower caste griots--wandering poets--who were responsible for handing down oral traditions from generation to generation. When Keïta chose to defy tradition--aristocrats did not do music--and pursue the path of the griots, he immediately became an outcast.
Perhaps this is why, with Keïta, every note is intentional, sacred. Nothing is taken for granted--especially not this music. Keïta's monochromatic appearance is a huge disparity in relation to his piercing, vibrant voice. And though not many here can confess to understanding the lyrics, all can confirm that it is the heart that translates.
After a brief introduction of songs, Keïta exits the stage and his musicians enter, a whirl of blue and brown and smiles and Africa. The 10-piece "orchestra" includes eight male instrumentalists and two female vocalists/dancers who evidently delight in making music. It is not often to see a band performing without that serious "I'm-making-music-that's-very-complex-look-so-simple" grimace: Keïta's troupe smiles at the audience, at themselves, at each other. Keïta, the "serious" one smiles little, moves little, though at some points when the "spirit" besets him, he jumps up and down or frenetically paces the stage or claps or breaks into a grin. Still, it seems unnatural to sit, and by the fifth song, Keïta stops the harmonizing and implores, "Come on, come on, stand up." The audience enthusiastically obliges and at once Page Auditorium becomes an improvised African village. At one point, a man from the audience jumps on stage and beins to dance along to the music. The band carries on--he is with he is community and he is welcome.
This is how African women dance: letting the music get inside their feet; moving their butts; singing to the n'goni, answering the drums. Keïta's latest CD, Moffou, is a collection of songs about women, life and love. Named after a small, shrill flute, played by farmers of the Sahel to deter herds of birds from ravaging their crops, Moffou is Keïta's deliberate attempt to return to his roots.
Tonight's program does not vary much from what you will find on a typical Keïta CD--though typical can hardly be used to describe his musical transformation. The first African musician to be nominated for a Grammy, Keïta has collaborated with musicians from Carlos Santana to Wayne Shorter to Vernon Reid, incorporating the Afro-Cuban and jazz/rock into the Mandingo. At times, Keïta has drawn flak from critics, who have been disturbed by his choice of producers and called his music "not really African music."
Bolon. Guitar. Keyboards. Tamani. Djembe. Kamelé N'Goni. Djely Goni. Calebasse. Voice. Feet. Hands. This is African music. This is Keïta's music. On this Wednesday night, the audience is pleased with this music and pleased to be the first spectators of Keïta's Moffou tour, a tour that will span many cities, countries and continents.
Somewhere amid the encore and the music and the audience members who have joined him onstage, Salif Keïta, the griot, the noble, the Pan-African, the musician, disappears in a whirlwind of movement. Though he has long been accepted by music lovers worldwide, he remains an African at heart--constantly endeavoring to build bridges between his continent and the rest of the world.
With Keïta, music is life is duty is emancipation for Africa is joy is beauty is purpose. And in an age where props and costuming and special effects is the norm for the majority of live concerts, it is refreshing to see musicians put on a show, without putting on a show. And it's welcoming to see that as usual, Africa (and Africans) has much to teach Americans about living life simply--to its fullest. --olufunke moses