VSO: Stars of Africa Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It may come as a surprise to some Alaskan politicians, but the continent of Africa is home to many countries, each boasting its own multi-faceted cultural character.

That was made clear by the bill of this 50th Anniversary Concert celebrating 50 years of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). But while there are obvious differences between the Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo and headlining South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the show as a whole was more restrained than expected.

The atmosphere was a world away from the recent concert by Femi Kuti, which turned that sombre Royal Festival Hall into a wild dance party throng, from which emanated high-pitched yodels of acclamation. I can only recall one such ululation at the Albert Hall, during Masekela's set, and that went down like a lead balloon, so out of place it seemed at such a genteel occasion.

Earlier, accompanied by his wife, singer Amy Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate opened the concert with a brief set of two numbers showcasing his virtuosity on the ngoni, the tiny African lute widely regarded as the forerunner of the banjo. Kouyate has worked with both the kora master Toumani Diabaté and the guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and his technique incorporates elements of both the former's twinkling, harp-like cascades and the latter's earthier, desert-blues grooves. But all too soon he had to make way for Angelique Kidjo, who set about rousing the audience with the crossover Afro-pop for which she has become internationally known through collaborations with the likes of Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys, Ziggy Marley and Joss Stone.

Thanks to her energetic presence, and her assiduous working of the crowd – touring through the stalls while the audience sang the refrain to "Afrika" – the temperature of the event was raised considerably. Unfortunately, it cooled off again by the time Hugh Masekela appeared to essay a series of gentle jazz pieces built around understated guitar vamps and quiet sediments of percussion. When, during the opening of his eagerly-awaited hit "Grazing in the Grass", a medical emergency in the audience temporarily halted the show, what scant momentum had been developed was dispelled completely.

When the band resumed, the tune had been summarily dropped, in order to accommodate Kidjo's return for a duet of "Soweto Blues", and the ensemble finale of "Mandela" – the final frustration of a night which promised much, but rarely fulfilled that promise.

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