Star Power and Substance

Baaba Maal provided the African celebrity glitter at this year's International Festival, but a pair of lesser-known emigrants from that continent may well equal the Senegalese superstar in substance. Sally Nyolo and Ricardo Lemvo have taken routes that differ from those of most artists with Afro-pop credentials, but despite their unorthodox paths, they've begun to elbow their way into the spotlight.

Born in Cameroon, Nyolo left home at the age of 13 to live and study in France. While studying law in the early '80s, she started singing reggae and punk in Paris clubs. Her first break came when mega-rocker Jacques Higelin hired Nyolo as his backup singer, and she eventually hit the road with a number of French rock and pop heavyweights. Shaped by the modern musical world and ready to move to the frontline, she tapped her roots for inspiration. In 1993 she formed a band built around bikutsi (translation: "to beat the earth"), the regional rhythms of her birthplace, with an acoustic foundation of percussion and tight vocal harmonies. To that, she added grabby instrumental and performance elements from her impetuous youth.

After an acclaimed set at the WOMAD Festival and several recording projects, Nyolo hooked up with Zap Mama leader Marie Daulne, who invited her to join that a cappella group. But Nyolo needed to flex her own talents, and she eventually left the Zappers to resume her solo endeavors. Today, in addition to fronting her own outfit, Nyolo is in demand as a studio singer and composer, and has produced scores for film and radio.

Like Nyolo, Ricardo Lemvo left Africa as a teenager, moving from Zaire to Los Angeles when he was 16. His musical loyalties were divided between the Zairean soukous and the Cuban music that dominated the Kinshasa scene in the 1960s. After a stint with a Cuban salsa outfit and an Afro-pop band, Lemvo decided to combine the two forms. In 1990, he formed Makina Loca ("Crazy Dance," not "Crazy Machine"), an amalgam of African and Cuban styles. Rather than churning out the generic world-beat mush that sometimes results from too many ingredients, Makina Loca tilts from one distinct flavor to the next. Thanks, in large part, to Cuban keyboardist, arranger and co-leader Nino Jesus Alejandro, the music of Makina Loca hangs together quite nicely as pure dance music. And with Nyolo taking the stage just after Lemvo, the paramedics best be out in force.

-- Bob Burtman

Ricardo Lemvo and Sally Nyolo perform on Sunday, April 26, at the Chase World Music Stage, City Hall, at the Houston International Festival. Lemvo takes the stage at 3 p.m., Nyolo at 4:45 p.m. Festival admission is $6 (adults); $3 (children). For info, call (800) 541-2099.

Our Lady Peace -- Our Lady Peace are major stars in their Canadian homeland, where their latest CD, Clumsy, debuted at number one and went platinum in a mere three weeks. Success is happening on a comparatively more modest level in America -- but it is happening. The Toronto group formed in 1993 and signed to major label Sony with only four original songs to its credit. The band, in fact, wrote eight of the 11 songs on its debut, Naveed, during preproduction for the recording sessions. All that deadline pressure seems to be working well for Our Lady Peace: The band continues to sharpen its hook-centered, heavy-rock craft, expanding the depth of its songs and growing ever more personal and direct in its angsty themes. Saturday, April 25, at BuzzFestival '98, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, the Woodlands. Gates open at 11 a.m. Sold out. 629-3700. (Alan Sculley)

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Bob Burtman
Alan Sculley