Tuesday, July 27, 2010
New York's African summer follies went into overdrive at Central Park Summerstage on July 25 with a terrific triple bill: Fool's Gold, Burkina Electric, and Bassekou Kouyate with Ngoni Ba. What began as another steamy scorcher of a day evolved into a furious rainstorm that raged through Fool's Gold's and most of Burkina Elecric's set. (The sun returned for Bassekou.) Increment weather definitely cut down on the crowds. But it sure didn't hold the music back. Fool's Gold, an LA band that interprets African pop styles with panache and flair, and Hebrew vocals, kicked things off with a blend of Malian Wassoulou music, Ethio-jazz, desert blues, and on their crowd-pleasing hit, "Surprise Hotel" East African guitar boogie.
Luke top (vocals and bass) and Lewis Pesakov (guitar) started this band as a "project," an open jam session at a local LA nightclub. But once they recorded their debut CD, Fool's Gold, word got around. They opened this show at Central Park less than a year after the CD's release. There's not an African in the band, but no one seemed to care a bit. The grooves were superb. A year of touring really showed!
Dancing in the rain.... Nothing like it.
Burkina Electric followed with their highly ideosyncratic blend of Burkina Faso roots, African pop, and electronica. Percussionist and composer Lukas Ligeti is the mind behind this one-of-a-kind collaboration. He moves between traditional drum kit and electronic devices. But the heart and soul of the band is lead vocalist Mai Lingani, who combines powerful pipes, wild moves, and an irresistibly joyous stage presence.
Mai is flanked by two fantastic male singer/dancers, As and Vicky. Burkina guitarist Wende Blass and German electronics wizard Pyrolator complete the lineup. Burkina Electric is a study in contrasts--at once high-concept and earthy. On this occasion, the feeling was all there and a drenched crowd responded accordingly.
From LA musical adventurists, to cross-cultural experimentation, we got 100% Malian fire with Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba. From the first notes, this group showed the overwhelming power of growing up in a tradition and knowing so cold that you can take it anywhere you like. Bassekou plays the formerly humble ngoni (a spike lute), and I say formerly, because from the moment in the 80s when he put on a strap and stood up from his chair to take a solo, the instrument has never been the same. Ngoni Ba is the fruit of many years labor. After years as a prized sideman, Bassekou has made the world's only band that uses only ngonis as its melodic/harmonic instruments.
Bassekou's wife Ami Sacko is a powerhouse griot singer (jelimuso), and a radiant presence on the stage. When the band came down for her slow, smoldering read of the griot standard "Kandjo," the moistened hairs on many spines were standing on end. It was absolutely electrifying.
Bassekou's 4-ngoni juggernaut includes two blood relatives. Each player is brilliant, and together, they create an effervescent, tingling weave of sound that is hard to match. Never has an acoustic band rocked this hard. Like fellow Malian Salif Keita's band--the other A+ African show at Summerstage this year, Ngoni Ba does not use trap set. The key to the drum sound is the calabash, playing bass drums with a fist to the crown, and snare drum with metal ringed fingers. It's a brilliant innovation that both these groups execute to the hilt. When the ngonis all went into overdrive near the end of the set, the sound was dense, hypnotic, trance inducing, and a thrash fest to boot. The sun had returned, and everyone present seemed transported to a new plane of ecstasy.
Watch www.afropop.org for coming web videos of all three of these groups.