The “Acoustic Africa’’ tag was devised by Putamayo, the world-music label, to market a compilation of previously recorded African folk-pop. The three headliners who performed under the rubric Thursday night at Lisner Auditorium could have done much the same, performing brief sets of their signature tunes. But Habib Koite, Oliver Mtukudzi and Afel Bocoum committed fully to collaboration, crafting a two-hour-plus concert that blended their styles, as well as musicians from their respective bands. If that marks the three African singer-guitarists as over-achievers, no one in the hall was complaining.
Mali’s Koite and Zimbabwe’s Mtukudzi are popular in the West, and have performed many times in Washington. Bocoum, also from Mali, is less known here, although not without credentials. (For one thing, the great “Mali blues’’ guitarist Ali Farka Toure was his uncle.) But no one performer was the star of this show, which included charismatic turns by all three frontmen, as well as most of the backing players.
The evening began with Bocoum, accompanied by two members of his regular ensemble: Mamadou Kelly on guitar and Yoro Cisse playing njurkel, a one-stringed lute. Yet any impression that Bocoum was just the opening act vanished with the second song, for which he was joined by Mtukudzi and three others. Koite entered for the third number, so that all eight musicians had been introduced. While the onstage population kept shifting, for most numbers both Mali and Zimbabwe were represented. Mtukudzi performed “Neira,’’ his lament for African women, accompanied only by Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) player Philip Tzikirai. But when Koite sang such standards as “Ma Ya’’ and “Wassiye,’’ either Bocoum or Mtukudzi was there to help.
Koite and Mtukudzi had worked up some banter about their respective countries; the Francophone former playfully griped that he never went to Zimbabwe because they speak English there. (He delivered this jibe, of course, in English.) But the mock adversaries proved staunch allies when they played duets, their high-pitched (and, technically, electric) guitars chiming together in rhapsodic accord. The trio even unveiled a theme song, “Malizim,’’ that brought the crowd to its feet (not for the first time) when played as an encore. The melody was more in Koite’s style than the other two’s, but with all three trading verses, the tune had pan-African verve.