New York Times...

Wyclef Jean: A Hip-Hop Master Invokes Cultural Deities

Wyclef Jean obviously exerted himself planning the benefit concert he staged for his charity, the Wyclef Jean Foundation, Friday at Carnegie Hall.

This hip-hop star cajoled an impressive number of famous friends to pop by and taught more than a dozen talented youths from his music education program, Clef's Kids, how to grace the hall's elegant stage. Mr. Jean also corralled a marching band and several costumed Carnival dancers for the show's climax, just to make it really climactic. Finally, he rearranged a Bach piece to include hip-hop beats and jazz blue notes, and conducted several of Clef's Kids in its performance.

Yet all Mr. Jean needed to bring to this event was his personality, an audacious, effusive, sometimes aggravating force of nature, and the fancy crowd would have been highly entertained. Surrounded by the spectacle he had willed into being, he made what promised to be another bloodless all- star event a great time.

Papa Legba, the trickster-patriarch of voodoo, had possessed the Haitian-born Mr. Jean for the night. He mentioned another deity of the cultural crossroads. "I'm the new Sammy Davis Jr.," he said during one of his many strolls into the audience. "I'm liked by everyone."

Mr. Jean has actually received mixed responses within hip-hop; like Davis, he's sometimes   considered too eager to assimilate into the pop mainstream. Yet as host of the first hip-hop-oriented concert in Carnegie Hall, he realized the full value of his crossover art.

Ebullience made the night's fusion experiments work. Enlisting the teenage soprano Charlotte Church to sing Gershwin's "Summertime" may not have been the best idea (she did better on "Ave Maria" but the very audacity charmed. Turning "Wish You Were Here," by Pink Floyd, into a Caribbean-tinged jam session (with languid vocals by Macy Gray) absolutely worked, as did persuading Whitney Houston to go deeper into the reggae
groove Mr. Jean wrote into her hit "My Love is Your Love."

The room jumped with energy whenever Mr. Jean was onstage. This was fortunate, because he hardly ever left, except to wander forth to address an esteemed audience member. He frequently ribbed the music mogul Clive Davis, gawked at the supermodel Naomi Campbell and consulted with his manager, David Sonenberg. 

Nor did Mr. Jean ignore his less famous fans. He taught Jamaican patois to a white fan and joked with several blacks about how rare it was to see their race represented in Carnegie Hall.

That last point, which Mr. Jean frequently made, is a little unfair. Perhaps he hasn't heard of Carnegie's resident jazz band. Yet few concerts here have been so aggressive about displaying African-diaspora pride. The Caribbean was represented by Stephen Marley, son of Bob Marley, and the veteran reggae band Third World, but the region's style touched nearly everything.

Mr. Jean, who was born in Haiti and grew up in Brooklyn, is as interested in hip-hop's roots as in hip-hop itself. His songs reach back to what hip-hop has adapted as it reaches out to sources that it rarely incorporates, like Bach. Sometimes the mix gets messy, even silly, but like the man who makes it, it bristles with ideas.

Most of Mr. Jean's guests seemed stimulated by his frenetic presence. Ms. Houston was inspired, if a bit frantic, during her gospel-flavored star turn. Eric Clapton transformed his dusty hit, "Wonderful Tonight," into a reggae idyll. Stevie Wonder, a surprise guest, was his usual radiant self.

Two artists deserved bigger spotlights. Marc Anthony strolled onstage as Mr. Jean and Claudette Ortiz were breezing through "Guantanamera" and devastated everyone with a single vocal swoop. Mary J. Blige did the same in a duet with Mr. Jean on his song "911."

Destiny's Child, this year's hottest soul vocal group, got two songs, but hardly earned its time. Only the trio's gifted leader, Beyoncé Knowles, seemed to be singing as backing tracks played and tired dance routines unfurled.

This slightly dull moment passed, though, within an evening that mostly just got better. The junior cast members from Clef's Kids couldn't really stand out amid all the star power, but their mere presence intensified the festive mood. Mr. Jean's sister, Melky Jean, proved his finest protégée with a blues-sauced, stomping version of "Amazing Grace."

Ms. Jean dedicated that song to her father, a Newark minister, whom her brother mentioned throughout the evening. "My father never came to see me before," Mr. Jean said.

As delighted as he clearly was to have arrived in this cultural temple, this pop millionaire genuinely seemed most concerned that one man, his father, have a good time. This expression of love was his most endearing move of all.



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