It was the last night of the African fest in Chicago and I needed to see Chaka. So I hopped into a cab in Bronzeville and headed straight to Washington Park. At the entrance of the park, I felt like I had returned to the Motherland.... to the rich cultural tapestry of the African marketplace...
There was a cacophony of music, sights, sounds and smells of food....
The drummers were drumming while the colorful African fabric and tie-dyed hues hung and swung in the night air swaying to the beat...
If you could only afford one night at the festival marketplace, this was the night to come, for this is the night you get that "last price", the "we don't want to take this back home to NY, LA, Atlanta or wherever the vendors travel from to be at the at the African Fest. I moved quickly , stopping to chat and collecting cards to make that purchase when I could... but tonight I was on a mission. I needed to see Chaka Khan....
First, I went to the Drum Village to listen to the drummers and to tune into the ancestral vibe as they played. As I moved throught the park, there was such a diverse amount of sounds...
Live congas and African drums rang all through the park. Jamaican Rasta... dub music, House, Funk, R&B, Stepping music and Highlife from Africa were all blending from booth to booth like some master DJ was weaving a mix and soundtrack from different parts of the Diaspora.
This year the festival featured Chicago's own House Music and recognized us a the center of HOUSE nation. On the festival stages, over the four day holiday weekend there had been a large array of musical performers including Sugar Strings, Bobbi Humphrey, Maggie Brown, Seneke, Tito Jackson, Angelique Kidjo and Javon featuring Les Mc Cann... but I came tonight to see Chaka.... Chaka Khan.
Along the way in the marketplace, I drank in all the beautiful art, paintings, sculptures and statues and carvings from Benin, Senegal, Haiti, Jamaica and works from artists from all over the United States .
The crafts were from all over the Diaspora as well. I saw unique clothing, jewelry, quilts, posters, books and bolts of colorful African fabric and more.....
There stood huge and small African statues made from carved wood or bronze. I was told by the art dealers that some of the statues were over a century old.
There were African inspired designer dresses, bags and purses. Rastafari and Bob Marley gear.
Earrings made from African beads, metals and fabric and feathers. Shea butter, incense, books, musical CDs and so many items that I wanted.... needed... but I was focused... I was here to see Chaka.
I was headed towards the food... but there were so many choices.....jerk chicken, African joloff rice, African greens, plaintains, smoothies, J&J catfish, ribs, turkey hot links, chicken wings, Brother Tim's healthy offerings, red beans and rice, yams, funnel cakes..... It was all so inviting.... but I was focused. I knew that all I needed was a little gumbo and some plaintains.
Can't get distracted.... My mission... going to see Chaka..
When I finally made it over to the concert area, Les Mc Cann was playing and the park was packed! It was a sea of people. It was a
variety of races, ages and lifestyles and they were all there for Chaka Khan. I saw everything... including young people, baby boomers, Japanese, African, Europeans, African-American, Hip Hoppers, Steppers, Pan-African creatives, House music lovers, corporate types and grandparents... The fans were everywhere! Everyone had brought their own seats and some had brought food , wine, candles and incense to create a vibe as tribal as the fest!
Chaka came out performing in great musical form. She wowed the crowd with her professionalism and spirit. Accompanied by a top-notch band and background vocalists, Chaka held her own in the night crowd. She spoke about how she felt she was right at home amongst family and friends. She also spoke of having been clean for seven years and thanking God for her gifts.
Chaka was very warm to the the crowd at fest. And the crowd loved her back! As she sang her songs including "Aint Nobody, Hollywood, Sweet Thang, Tell Me Something Good... the crowd
sang along with every song. If Chaka modulated up to change keys, the crowd flowed right with her and changed keys as well. They knew every word and riff and scatted like they were getting paid to sing the parts.
I'm Every Woman was the closer and it was just phenomenal.
Chaka... Chaka Khan was at her best in this performance!
After the show, I played around asking the departing crowd in a mock exit interview....
"How did you enjoy the show?" "Was it all that you expected?" And the answer was resoundingly the same.... "No, it was better! She was marvelous!" She was as exciting as she was when she first began." The crowd appreciated her respect for her craft and her sobriety. And they made it known and plain. Many had experienced her days of artistic departure so they really appreciated this show.
It was a major homecoming to see Chaka Khan in this setting. Why? Because many of early fans remember when Chaka Khan sang in these African based settings back in the day that marked the beginning of her career before she went on to mainstream Funk stardom.
Part of Chaka's musical roots came out of the Chicago Pan-African avante garde musical style as she had sang at the Kelan Phil Coran's Afro-Arts Theatre in the early days of the Pharoahs and Earth Wind and Fire. The Chaka that we knew from Chicago could scat jazz and funk simultaneously and she brought it all back in this concert.
So finally I could leave... I had my gumbo, I had my art, my music and my concert with Chicago's own Chaka Khan. I ended my journey.. like I had begun. As I left in the night.... the drummers were still drumming at the Drum Village and I stopped to watch a mixture of dancers freestyling capoeira and break dancing as they played. A crowd watched and breathed in the rhythms.... Time to go...
Thanks, Patrick Woodtor and the Africa International House....for a great fest.
Can't wait till next year.