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Bastille Day hums to international beat

Sékouba Bambino, Daby Touré, Emeline Michel
At: the French Library Bastille Day street party, Friday

African polyrhythms echoed off townhouse walls on tony Marlborough Street and the upright Back Bay set mingled with students, hipsters, immigrants, and Rastafarians on Friday evening, as the French Library carried off a spectacular Bastille Day street party.

Earlier in the day, however, the planned headliners, Congolese superstar Papa Wemba and his band, were unable to board their flight in Paris due to visa problems. The organizers recovered in style by persuading the Guinean master Sekouba Bambino to add a stop to his North American tour. He played first in order to catch a late flight out.

Bambino is a veteran of a crucial band in his country's independent history, Bembeya Jazz National, which formed in the 1960s and remains active today. His set was a gem in the classic style of sounds from Guinea and Mali. As an elegant guitarist unleashed line after line of sweet singing melody, Bambino mixed incantations on timeless human themes -- the avoidance of cruelty, the importance of trust -- with honorific shoutouts to the African nations represented in the crowd, as well as to Boston itself.

The torch then passed to the younger generation, in the form of emerging Mauritanian star Daby Toure, whose father played in the 1980s Senegal-based outfit Toure Kunda. Toure, who lives in Paris, performed in a more accessible, international style, with blunter rhythms and a powerful bass, and more than a few hints of reggae. During an impressive set he ignited the crowd, returning drenched in sweat for a triumphant encore.

In her second Boston appearance this year, Haitian singer Emeline Michel slipped into the headliner role with ease and grace. Her take on kompas, Haiti's signature sound, is at once folksy and sexy, underscored by her beautiful dancing. Her themes are earnest and hopeful, deeply marked by the endless political crisis in her country, which at the moment is traversing a particularly rough phase.

Ironically, this Bastille Day festival featured no French artists, but ones from nations that famously rejected French rule: Haiti two centuries ago, and Guinea in 1958. Even Daby Toure had the crowd chanting and dancing to a song in honor of Samory Toure, a Malinke hero who fought the French in the 19th century.

But when Michel paused to honor a close friend, Haitian journalist Jacques Roche, whose tortured corpse was discovered the previous day, it was a reminder that the Bastille Day themes of liberation and equality are still urgent and universal today.

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