Mandela Day -- Concert Review

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The headliners may have included such American marquee names as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin and Josh Groban, but it was African music that appropriately was first and foremost at this concert in honor of Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday. Although the guest of honor was unable to be there, a gallery of his country's top music stars feted him with a joyous musical celebration that marked the first-ever "Mandela Day."

"Mandela Day will not be a holiday, but a day devoted to service," Mandela informed the audience via a videotaped message.

The number 46664 was prominently displayed throughout the proceedings -- it's the number that adorned Mandela's prison uniform during his 27 years of captivity on Robben Island.

The well-paced three-hour evening featured an all-star line-up of international stars, augmented by a superb house band and the thrilling Soweto Gospel Choir. It also included two queens (Queen Latifah and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin) and one First Lady (Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, making her U.S. performing debut).

Introduced by Whoopi Goldberg, the show featured the usual introductions by Hollywood stars, including Forest Whitaker, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Morgan Freeman (the latter of whom is portraying Mandela in an upcoming Clint Eastwood film.) President Obama provided a taped greeting.

Among the African performers prominently featured were Baaba Maal, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Freshlyground, Sipho Mabuse, Vusi Mahlasela, Suzanna Owiyo and many others.

Many of the evening's high points were duets. The improbable pairing of Cyndi Lauper and Lil' Kim resulted in a deeply-felt rendition of Lauper's "Time After Time"; Bruni-Sarkozy and Dave Stewart sang delicate acoustic interpretations of one of her songs and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind"; Chris Chameleon and Maal collaborated on a stirring version of "With My Own Two Hands"; Groban sang with both Franklin and Mahlasela to great effect; and Alicia Keys and Angelique Kidjo garnered lusty cheers with their sexy hip-swiveling during "Afrika."

Solo standouts included Latifah's soaring "I Know Where I've Been"; Franklin's powerful "Make Them Hear You";'s bouncy "It's a New Day"; and Wonder's impassioned "To Keep Our Love Alive."

Wyclef Jean provided his distinctive brand of showmanship on two numbers (including a new song written for the occasion), wandering into the crowd at one point and finishing his set with an athletic back flip.

The evening ended on a perfect note, with the entire lineup gathered onstage to sing Wonder's "Happy Birthday," originally about Martin Luther King, Jr. but adapted for the event.

Venue: Radio City Music Hall, New York (Saturday, July 18)
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