Saturday, August 28, 2010

Welcome to the East: Wyclef Jean live in Bangalore

Before Shakira inspired Haitian American musician and producer Wyclef Jean to rap about the truth in her hips, the Clef was fast becoming a man in serious need of some respect. In a recent interview with Scratch, the hip-hop magazine, Wyclef was asked about a possible Fugees reunion. “I’m officially Paul McCartney from the Beatles now,” he replied. “If the Fugees wanna come back… you can’t break the format”. He admitted to having had cruel words with Lauryn Hill, his former workmate: Hill wanted production control, Wyclef called her incompetent and declined to give her any, and she bitched, “How do you know what’s relevant? I haven’t heard anything from you in the past like three, four years?” Oh, but that had to have hurt.
Since this exchange, testimony to the power of a scorned woman’s tongue, Wyclef seems to have reclaimed some lost respect. Shakira helped him with that annoying earworm, Hips Don’t Lie, to his first hit single in a long while (in hip-hop years, anyway), followed by further collaborations in his comeback vehicle and 6th studio album, Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, with artists as varied as Paul Simon, Mary J Blige, Norah Jones,, Aadesh Shrivastava and Akon. If this lineup seems a conceptual stretch, you only have to hark back to the Fugees bestseller and twice-Grammy winning The Score for tried and tested evidence of Wyclef’s musical agility. This 6-time Platinum album broke all records and preconceptions when it was released in 1996, continuing to gather converts more than a decade later with a gestalt summed of such unlikely parts as the straight-up alternative hip-hop of How Many Mics, catchy reinterpretations of Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry and Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, and the subdued Mista Mista, a scorching anti-drug ballad accompanied by a single accoustic guitar. The Score is one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and much of that greatness can be attributed to Wyclef’s astute production.

In the years between worldwide acclaim and having his street-cred questioned by an upstart Fugee, Wyclef Jean’s hip-hop market has mutated in unexpected and utterly welcome ways. Jean’s junior artists, many of whom cite him as a major influence, are now his competition; the new sound is fresh and diverse, infusing old rhythms with young, global ideas; and fame, now more than ever, is a 15-second affair. So does Wyclef know what’s relevant? He certainly seems to be putting up a keen fight against obscurity, what with increased public appearances, Carnival II, humanitarian activities and a Haitian roving ambassadorship. The Bengaluru Pages sent its crew to the April 16th Clef gig at Hard Rock CafĂ© to check it before we wreck’d it.

Due to limited standing space, concert entry was on a first-come-first-served basis. Even so, VH1, organizers of the Wyclef Jean Live in India tour, might have underestimated the local response. The show was to start at 8.30 pm, so we decided to beat the odds and arrive at 7, by which time there was already a vicious anaconda of pretend heavy-rollers slithering all along and around the old Hard Rock building. Long-legged women dressed in sheer nothings and face-paint, and men with pants hanging off their knees, bling-bling and oil-slick hair like rooster’s combs, sandpaper and spaghetti, they sweated rivulets, chewed on fingernails and feigned self-possession. One girl from the queue took a long look at a friend of mine, who had arrived there straight from work in a salwar kameez, and remarked to her little coterie with undisguised derision, “What, she’s also coming in?” The few cops that were by now in place switched between expressions of weariness and irritation, media crews buzzed around the entrance in fractious droves, and we promptly repaired to Koshy’s next door for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. We returned by 8 to find that the queue outside the building looked much the same while the insides were groaning with unaccustomed stress. Grabbing media passes from the VH1 team, we mowed our way into the front area just below the concert deck, which was a crunch rivalling any rush hour bus-ride, with the star attraction nowhere in sight and rising fears of being caught in the thick of a yuppie insurgency. A back-up band and DJ set up instruments and consoles, jamming and joshing with the crowd while they waited, and when Wyclef himself arrived on stage wearing a feathery pink mask, a sustained roar went up that died only a few hours later when the concert finished.

The two muses that created the evening’s symphony were those of Respect and Irony. Respect was mutual, between Clef and his audience. He rapped and they rapped along. He hung off the edge of the stage and they hung onto his every movement. He felt the heat and so did they, he stripped off his clothing layer by layer and they probably wished they could follow suit. The set he played couldn’t have been better, compiling a short rewind to The Score with top-pop hits like No Woman No Cry, Ready or Not and Killing Me Softly, more Marley with Redemption Song, crowd-pleasers like House of Pain’s Jump Around and that Shakira number we’ve all heard a million times before, and a few of his solo releases like Stop the War and Welcome to the East. As an entertainer, Wyclef’s up there with the best. He did everything in his power to keep the audience going, even showing his guitar some Hendrix-love by playing it with his tongue. Surprise following showmanship, Aadesh Shrivastava, a collaborator from Carnival II, joined Wyclef on stage for a “Bollywood to Hollywood” bhangra-style jugalbandhi. There wasn’t enough sweat in the world to sink this act.

Irony crept in with the contradictions inherent in the concert. Here was a Haitian refugee who’d grown up in the harsh back alleys of America, outsourced now to an upper crust crowd in Bangalore. His lyrics, all about poverty and corruption and war and greed, all but drowned out by the frenzied party animal’s cumulative mating call. And, a moment in the concert that established who was listening and who wasn’t, when the artist went, “All the ladies in da house put they hands in da aaair!” followed by a roaring crowd of men waving their hands in the aaair, like they just didn’t caaare. Blame it on the acoustics – it’s so hard to listen when there’s so much to hear. But this Irony is ultimately a sheep in wolf’s clothing, because it happily bleats of an awakening. Of course, as to whether the city has in some way arrived, or if Wyclef is back to form, is yours to decipher. As Pras Michael, another ex-Fugee, muses, “In life we try to grow and better ourselves.” And that’s probably all there is to it, really.

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