Mélange: Afro-pop's lovely loose vibe

It was almost a year ago when UVA asked me to cover their Afro-pop Festival for the Arts and Sciences Online magazine. I jumped at the privilege to have access to all the events. Representatives from all over Africa came to perform and hold forums with the student body.

The one thing I learned for sure from the experience is there really is no such thing as Afro-pop music. The term Afro-pop was invented by westerners who don't have the will and patience to understand the rich and deep heritage and culture of the thousands of individual styles of modern music from all over the continent. But I guess we all have to start somewhere, so if giving the music a blanket term somehow gets people to listen to it, then it can't be all bad.

The professor emcee was a woman named Heather Maxwell. She proved to not only be knowledgeable about the musicians and the culture, but she's also an accomplished musician herself: she sat in on few jam sessions, playing many of the traditional instruments.

Fast-forward to the present (or shall I say, "very recent past") when Maxwell brought her own take on Afro-pop music last Wednesday to the Gravity Lounge. Performing with her as accompanying musicians were three-fourths of Robert Jospé's Inner Rhythm, back-up singers, and a dancer.

Maxwell can give me 20 lashes with a wet noodle if I'm wrong, but I'd stake my freelance wages that much of her show is derived from the traditional West African griot or story/history-telling culture of music. Inherent in that nature is a loose, carefree vibe even when the singer is dealing with serious subject matter. The inviting songs evince the same spirit as camp songs or minstrel tunes, but with a much more primal rhythmic vibe.

Maxwell successfully evoked that loose, relaxed vibe out of the players, singers, and audience. She incorporated skits into the songs to help illustrate the meanings behind the words. There was comedy, dance, call and response, and improvisation. In between songs, Maxwell shared her vast knowledge of the language of the songs by explaining their meaning. All that flavor was being served up on a hot plate in the form of Inner Rhythm's cosmic chemistry.

Some of the songs seemed unrehearsed, but Inner Rhythm's experience layered on Maxwell's poise and direction turned potential disasters into fun forays and missed cues into jubilant jams. In all, the spontaneity helped with the relaxed vibe. Everyone seemed to seize that human element of the music.

The 90-minute performance went by almost too quickly. The ensemble ended the night the same way they started, with a song that means both hello and goodbye. I left the experience thinking that it really didn't matter what one calls the music. Afro-pop or no Afro-pop, it was really the spirit of Africa that mattered: the spirit of truth, rhythm, soul, and community.

Next week: Jay Pun and Morwena Lasko bring the new heat.