Daara J, Jazz Cafe, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

"Come with us to Africa, Senegal. Shake your hands like this!" bawls Alhadji Man, more as battle cry than invitation, while the other two members of this trio - Ndongo D and Faada Freddy - stalk the small stage of the Jazz Cafe, dodging each other's flailing arms and dancing feet. All three are in patchwork robes that Joseph would have been proud of, as they deliver tracks from their acclaimed 2003 album Boomerang, plus some new tunes to be released next year.

It's easiest to explain what is special about Daara J by comparing them to their support act, Pee Frois, another hip-hop act from Senegal. They have been described as Senegal's Public Enemy, but this was fairly generic stuff and only "a song about loving your mother" called "Mother Lover" made an impression.

The difference between an average hip-hop act and a brilliant one was made clear as soon as Daara J bounced onto the stage: it's about theatre and stagecraft as much as material. There is no strolling around trying to look cool as is so often the MC's way; they perform like the best soul or rock acts do - without holding anything back.

Comparisons with other pop genres isn't inappropriate, for these accomplished songwriters - who sing and rap in English, French and Wolof - are influenced by everything from roots reggae and funk to flamenco and Cuban son. But as with all good bands it is assimilated into their music and they rarely sound derivative.

Some tracks, such as "Esperanza", are performed as rigid takes on the album versions, but others have been completely remodelled. The crowd-pleasing "Boomerang" is stretched beyond 10 minutes but doesn't suffer for it, due to an artfully placed a cappella break that simply serves to demonstrates what excellent harmonising vocalists these three are. The tense, fast funk of "Bopp sa Bopp" is taken up a gear and becomes a showcase for some impressive fast-forward rapping, and before you know it we're into extra time. A lengthy encore sees the introduction of, my goodness, a real instrument - an electric guitar!

The backing track is switched off so they can deliver a respectful but unexceptional cover of "No Woman No Cry" - "for the spirit of Bob Marley" - and then there's a final burst of frenetic bass-heavy grooves to end the night. Great stuff.

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