Salif Keita / Toby Foyeh & Orchestra Africa Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON June 29

Salif Keita / Toby Foyeh & Orchestra Africa Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON June 29
A double dose of Afrobeat closed out the Toronto Jazz Festival’s mainstage series, providing a real treat for local world music lovers. The sound of five-piece Nigerian band Toby Foyeh & Orchestra Africa possesses a contemporary tinge, as shown by the vamping on electric piano and occasional Santana-like grooves. After an opening instrumental, they were joined onstage by three striking, white-clad backing singers/dancers, and later by two highly loose-limbed dancers. This upped the energy level, and it was the dancing as much as the music that entertained the audience. A self-explanatory and cool instrumental, "Afrobeat Jazz,” was a musical highlight of their lengthy but unspectacular set. It seemed fitting that Salif Keita appeared here on the same weekend that the good (Nelson Mandela, turning 90) and the evil (Robert Mugabe, stealing an election) icons of African politics made headlines. You see, if you could choose just one voice to exemplify the best aspects of a troubled continent, you couldn’t do better than the man who has been termed "the Golden Voice of Africa.”

Over the course of a career now spanning 40 years, this member of the Mali royal family has become a superstar of world music, and he justified that reputation with a simply stunning performance. Dressed in a blue and gold robe, he began the set by standing still at the microphone, hands clasped over his heart and singing with true strength and soulfulness. His ace seven-piece band were complemented by two female singers/dancers, and their call and response interaction with Keita was a key facet of their sound. Their artfully choreographed but free-flowing routines proved crowd-pleasing, but it was the quiet magnetism of their leader that held sway.

Keita kept the show business flourishes to an absolute minimum, simply uttering a humble "thank you” after a few songs. He didn’t even name the songs he performed, but that scarcely mattered, given that they flowed together in virtually seamless fashion. Group members took the spotlight for concise solos, with the kora player and the percussionist playing a tiny drum wedged under his armpit being especially impressive. The hypnotic grooves only let up 50 minutes into the set, when the band left the stage and Keita picked up his guitar for the first time. His solo performance of a quiet ballad sent shivers up the spine, as did the following tune, sung with his two harmony vocalists. As the band returned onstage, Keita announced "it’s my birthday. Let’s dance.” He began twirling around, pumping his fist in the air and grinning, and the high-energy number had the entire crowd on its feet. While his boss caught his breath, the guitarist took over with some George Benson-like playing and scatting.

The energy level returned to high for the generous encores, punctuated by members of the local Mali community coming onstage to pay homage to their national hero. Keita closed out the night in full triumphant voice and expansive mood, capping a truly magical evening. Keita once told this scribe that, as a teenager, he loved the Scorpions. He has indeed come a long way!