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MONTREUX (Reuters) - Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo were among the headliners in a tribute to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell that rocked into the early hours at the Montreux Festival on Saturday.
"Without Mr Chris Blackwell you wouldn't have me before you tonight. That's all I have to say," Angelique Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning Beninese singer-songwriter discovered by Blackwell in 1991, said.
Kidjo, Maal and the other gathered musicians, who all recorded for Blackwell's boundary-crossing label during their careers, knocked dead the packed Stravinski Auditorium on the shores of Lake Geneva with a mold-breaking evening of musical acrobatics marking the label's 50th anniversary.
Blackwell, who started Island Records in 1959 with 1,000 pounds ($1,600), worked with local ska and reggae singers in Jamaica, where he grew up, before moving to London.
There he scored his first big transatlantic hit with Millie Small's cover of "My Boy Lollipop" set to a romping ska beat.
Island broke down musical, geographical and race barriers, helping turn reggae into a global musical form by bringing legendary Jamaican singer Bob Marley to an international audience, and unearthing talents like Kidjo and Irish band U2.
Congolese pianist and songwriter Ray Lema kicked off with a blend of Congolese rumbas, township jive and reggae.
"I know you are a man of passion. In other people this passion dies away," Lema told a visibly moved Blackwell, sitting in the audience. "So I just want to thank you for your passion, Chris Blackwell."
Jamaican pianist and band leader Monty Alexander followed, flitting through a genre-busting set of seamless complexity that left heads shaking in amazement.
The highlight was Alexander's cover of Marley's "The Heathen" that shifted effortlessly between driving grooves, rock and jazz forms before his double bassist provided what must be the cleverest Michael Jackson tribute to date.
In a short improvisation he moved smoothly from Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" into the King of Pop's "Billy Jean" and "Thriller" before Alexander's piano launched back into a full-out reggae finish to the Marley track.
Kidjo, who recorded four albums for Island before Blackwell stepped back from the label in 1997, joined a beaming Alexander onstage, bowling over the crowd with a voice as powerful and clear as any church bell in rollicking renditions of "Tumba" and "Afrika."
The last was dedicated to legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba, who was a key influence on Kidjo's muscular singing style and sassy stage persona.
Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal, an outspoken campaigner on poverty and AIDS in Africa, started his set with the acoustic "Tindo Quando" before rousing the crowd with the hypnotic electro-beat of "Television" and the rapid-fire West African rhythms of "International" pounded out by percussionists.
On Saturday, the festival pays tribute to jazz singer Nina Simone with performances by Kidjo and Wyclef Jean before further celebrations of Blackwell and Island Records including Sly and Robbie on Sunday and Marianne Faithful on Monday.
Reporting by Jason Rhodes; editing by Michael Roddy