Mali's First Coming 

A hot young gospel singer makes his Bay Area debut.

Mali Music, the most innovative young artist in gospel music, brought neither his band nor his background singers to Hayward for his rather low-profile Bay Area debut Saturday night at Glad Tidings Church of God in Christ. He did bring along one of his ingeniously programmed backing tracks — some of which employ wondrously complex syncopations reminiscent of such R&B artists as Dwele and Raphael Saadiq — for "The Light," the first of four sweetly reverent selections from his 2009 debut album The 2econd Coming. But after the four-minute track had ended, the throbbing groove was picked up without a hitch by the rhythm section from the Cal State East Bay Gospel Choir, sponsor of the haphazardly produced program. The four musicians, along with four local background vocalists, had rehearsed only briefly with the headliner earlier in the day.

Stop tryin' to figure me out/It ain't me, y'all/it's all about God, Mali wailed with a faux Jamaican accent while directing the band. The reed-thin, informally attired 22-year-old singer-songwriter had driven in with his mom and dad from Fresno, where they recently relocated from Savannah, Georgia.

As young, mostly female fans mobbed him after the concert for autographs and to pose with him for photos, Kim Walker said that her son's stage name has nothing to do with the African nation of Mali. Rather, it stems from his younger sister's mispronunciation of "Jamaal," his middle name.

Mali dropped the accent for the remainder of his 45-minute set and stuck to slower selections from the CD that the band was better able to negotiate. "Let the music flow," he instructed the quartet at one point during the performance, which doubled as a sound-check and continuation of the earlier rehearsal. The musicians did their job with remarkable aplomb, however, as they supported Mali on "Avaylable" (a song that earlier this year earned him a prestigious Dove Award nomination from the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association), "Glory of the Lamb," and "Yahweh."

Even without the accent, Mali's lilting, easy-to-sing melodies and pliant, strong-yet-soothing tenor tones often brought Bob Marley to mind. Mali's music has the makings of similar universal pop appeal, though such success would probably be limited due to his belief in the risen savior of the Christian faith, as opposed to the more-trendy Rastafarian worship of a dead dictator.

Mali testified nearly as much as he sang, and even offered single men advice on how to find an "awesome" Christian wife. His words, as much as his music, took many in attendance into states of spiritual delirium. "Bless your name, Lord," a woman standing in the row behind me said softly and repeatedly, her eyes closed and arms folded across her chest. But unlike the "shouters" at many church services and gospel concerts who scream, spin, and dance seemingly uncontrollably, those in the Hayward audience were more restrained while Mali wove his worshipful spell.

For "Yahweh," the concert's concluding selection, Mali invited many of the evening's earlier performers on stage to join him. As they and many in the sanctuary chanted "hallelujah," he bounced about the pulpit to the song's rumba-like beat.

The program was 65 minutes late in starting and began with the emcee testifying for 15 minutes more. Six opening acts ranged from amateurish to competent to inspiring. The 14-voice Cal State East Bay Choir — a club, not a class, at the university — was nicely disciplined and displayed a rousing sense of dynamics during its two-song set. Also offering two powerful selections were Jovan Watkins and Truth, an ensemble of six singers and four instrumentalists, the latest in a long line of gospel artists to emerge from Bishop Walter Hawkins' Love Center church in Oakland.

The highlight of the evening, other than Mali's closing set, was a four-part medley of praise songs by Oakland vocalist Lauren Byrd. She, like the headliner, had rehearsed in a hurry with the choir's rhythm section. At times, the performance threatened to fall apart, yet she and they managed to hold it together, while the volume and intensity rose, then subsided, again and again, for some thirty minutes. Byrd had begun rather tentatively, but her warm alto pipes surged as she continued, seemingly improvising some of the lyrics along her emotion-charged way. As the medley was about to end, she was on her knees, her right arm holding a microphone, her left raised and waving from side to side. She was in a state of religious ecstasy and took many in the audience right along with her.

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