Baaba Maal, Royal Festival Hall, London

From the golden continent
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The Independent Culture

The concert begins in spectacular fashion, with a line of percussionists streaming through the aisles on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, setting alight a blaze of polyrhythms that barely lets up for the next two hours. Featuring a panoply of dancers, drummers and singers, Baaba Maal's orchestra takes African music - specifically, Maal's native Yela traditions from northern Mali, with all its massed roots and membranes - and throws it up in an embodiment of Africa Remix on stage.

The concert begins in spectacular fashion, with a line of percussionists streaming through the aisles on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, setting alight a blaze of polyrhythms that barely lets up for the next two hours. Featuring a panoply of dancers, drummers and singers, Baaba Maal's orchestra takes African music - specifically, Maal's native Yela traditions from northern Mali, with all its massed roots and membranes - and throws it up in an embodiment of Africa Remix on stage.

Maal is known as "the Nightingale", and when he finally appears, the power and purity of his voice instantly make sense of the pounding polyrhythms. He appears dressed in fine, floor-length golden-brown robes - one of several costumes, including a knee-length, bright pink jacket, that he changes into through the evening's performance. To one side of the stage is one of the West African sculptor El Anatsui's cloths of gold fashioned from thousands of bottle tops and stitched with copper, draped over what look like high-jump bars. One of his works dominates the main hall of the Hayward Gallery, and he is there behind the backing singers, having flown in especially, stitching together a new cloth of gold specifically for this concert.

A large screen hangs high above the stage, showing a streaming montage of images from the Remix show that amplifies and provides a visual commentary to the songs. There are powerful, disturbing images of hostages or prisoners, blindfolded and beaten, their faces blackened out one by one, and later, pointed, loaded aphorisms which act as entry-points not so much to the music as to the culture, historical and contemporary pressures underlying it. But with few or any words of introduction from Maal, we are largely left to our own conclusions and associations, for there can be few in the audience who can follow his songs word for word.

Below the crowded imagery on screen, the already-crowded stage erupts with black-clad female dancers; their wild choreography breathtakingly animistic; tossing their heads like lions against the pounding percussion and throbbing, deep-rooted bass lines. They are joined by male dancers - the two groups acting out what look like folk tableaux, as each song gets an extensive workout of 15 minutes or more, with some astonishingly beautiful vocal contributions toward the end from Sohkna Cissoho and Cisse Diamba Kanoute.

It's a music that begs floor-space, and it is so heavily polyrhythmic that the keyboards and guitar are often just a murmur between the percussive cross-currents. By the fifth number, the pace relaxes with the kora of Diabel Cissokho, which opens up a reggae-ish, rock-steady architecture through which the orchestra's massed ranks move in and out of range. For the final number, before two lengthy encores, the rhythms intensify under the jack-hammer of an insistent, repetitive bass and synth note that is at once audaciously modernist and mechanistic, and yet segues perfectly with the gathering organic mass of the music around it.

This is Africa Remix writ large, music rolled out for a cloth of gold, and as members of the audience begin clambering on stage to join the dancers and musicians, the frantic bass pulse increases to near warp-speed and it sounds like the primordial birth of a world, or at least the end of one.

And Anatsui's cloth of gold is raised on its bar, bringing this extraordinary spectacle to a spectacular close.

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