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SMF Daily Review: Brazilian, South African sounds hit the South

  • Vusi Mahlasela

SMF Daily Review: Brazilian, South African sounds hit the South

03 Apr 2015

In the afterglow of her warmly received concert appearance the previous evening, Brazilian Clarice Assad was delighted to have a second opportunity to present the music of her native country in the smaller, more intimate confines of the Charles H. Morris Center. The April 2 lunchtime show also featured her accompanying band, Off the Cliff, and Mike Marshall, whose own group, Choro Famosa, had shared the stage with Assad the previous night at the Lucas Theatre.

Renowned as a symphonic composer, arranger, producer and jazz pianist, as well as a singer, Assad is the daughter of acclaimed guitarist and composer Sergio Assad. Her piano skills were much in evidence as she led Off the Cliff through a program of samba-, bossa nova- and jazz-infused songs by Brazilian composers, such as Milton Nasciemento and Antonio Carlos Jobim. She also gave rein to her beautiful mezzo voice, which has a dulcet quality that lends robustness and gives the impression of an extended range. She clearly loves scat singing, and made effective use of clicks, clucks, trills and every other ornamental device in the book while improvising with her bandmates and Marshall, who added his mandolin to the mix for a few songs.

Also at the Morris Center, I caught the early and late evening sets dubbed by SMF organizers as South Africa Meets the American South: Vusi Mahlasela/Dirk Powell & Riley Baugus. Mahlasela is one of South Africa's greatest gifts to world culture. In songs such as “Say Africa” and “Troubadour,” he stressed themes of freedom, justice and harmony without shying away from the grim legacy of apartheid.

See all our festival interviews HERE.

In one song, Mahlasela invoked the memory of activist Steve Biko, who was murdered in 1977 while in the custody of South African police. As a way of introducing another song, Mahlasela asked for a coin, which someone in the audience produced. “A friend of mine taught me this next song, which he learned in prison,” he said. “It's called 'Jailbreak.'” Mahlasela then scraped the coin up and down the guitar strings, creating the rip-sawing sound with which anyone who has ever played or been around the instrument is familiar.

Internationally recognized simply as “The Voice,” Mahlasela commands the stage not only by deftly wielding his amazing multi-octave natural instrument, but also by representing the exceptional strength and dignity of the South African people and advocating generally for African causes. Oh – his Zulu breakdancing moves were pretty solid, too.

In the other half of the “all-south” program, Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus supported the cause of traditional folk music from Appalachia and Louisiana. One of the set's highlights was Riley's cover of Dock Boggs' “False Heated Lover's Blues” in which, noted Riley, the song's protagonist expresses his preference for “oceanic mammalia” over his former girlfriend (you had to be there). Powell, a founding member of the Cajun group Balfa Toujours, picked up the squeezebox for a couple of songs by one of his mentors, Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin. All in all, the two men presented a mighty fine mix of contemporary Americana.

Between shows at the Morris Center, I managed to sneak over to the Lucas Theatre for the Arts and catch a half-dozen or so songs by Josh Ritter. I can't say Ritter's style suits my personal tastes, but half the audience was singing along on almost every song.