Alpha Blondy, Festival Hall, London

Reggae's megastar gets the party started
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The Independent Culture

It's hard to know what to expect from the first night of the legendary Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch'' Perry's Meltdown festival from the atmosphere in the foyer.

The reggae vibes appear to have effected a partial take-over of the Festival Hall. But the dance floor is empty, the Loseley ice cream vendors are out in force, and Alpha Blondy's concert is, supposedly, an all-seater.

Is this a reggae dance, or a world music reading? The answer comes about a minute after the Solar System, Blondy's backing band, take the stage. The entire hall is on its feet. By the time Alpha Blondy appears, security have given up trying to clear the aisles. This is a pop concert. Blondy is the biggest reggae star in the world. In his native Ivory Coast and all across Africa, he is a megastar, while the dreadlocked youth of continental Europe and Latin America revere him as one of the few high-profile Africans to have (at least partially) embraced rastafarianism.

Like Bob Marley, he is seen as an icon of international peace and understanding. His songs promote peace and faith while attacking corrupt politicians and religious zealots. But also like Marley, much of his music is disdained by "serious'' reggae pundits as uncool or too un-Jamaican.

The invitation to open the Meltdown Festival curated by "Scratch'' Perry gives Blondy the opportunity to redress the balance. In fact, Blondy's music is closer to the pop end of the reggae spectrum than to the traditional sounds that one is led to expect from "world music''. His bouncy, summery root sound is designed for partying, as the adoring fans seem fully to understand.

The one aspect of Blondy that does mark him out as unmistakably African, though, is his voice - a plaintive high-pitched wail comparable to that of Youssou N'dour. But the music is pure reggae. Unlike many Jamaican stars who play in London, Blondy is backed by his 12-piece multiracial band.

Diminutive and dressed in camouflage dungarees, he alternates between an expression that denotes back pain or inspiration, and crazy, off- balance leaping. His banter is limited to howls and cackles, apart from a plea for peace in Liberia and an announcement that the curfew has been lifted in Abidjan (capital of Ivory Coast). When the war there is over, the king of African reggae plans a celebratory concert. In the meantime, Meltdown looks likely to be something of a party itself.