Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Savannah Music Festival Part 1

Kenneth Routon recently attended the annual Savannah Music Festival and filed this report for Afropop Worldwide:

As an icon of the Deep South, Savannah, Georgia seems an unlikely setting for one of the best world music festivals in the country. Majestic moss-draped oaks canopy the city’s streets and square. Everywhere the scent of honeysuckle, jasmine, and magnolia blossoms perfumes the air amongst hidden gardens, ghostly antebellum mansions, and tales of hoodoo that impart an eerie quality to the town’s overall mystique. Despite Savannah’s idyllic Southern aesthetic, each spring the city transforms itself into a global crossroads of music for the Savannah Music Festival where delta bluesmen, West African griots, Honky Tonk crooners, Cuban rumberos, zydeco accordion masters and Indian sarod virtuosos all cross paths.

Geno Delafose (photo by Frank Stewart)
I caught my first performance of the Festival last Friday night. Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie kicked things off at the Charles H. Morris center with their crowd-pleasing take on Louisiana creole and zydeco music. Delafose, who looked as if he had just casually walked off his Double D ranch on the Acadian prairie maintained a working-man persona despite his sparkling belt and shiny squeezebox. A tall guy with an infectious permagrin, Delafose and the band quickly got Savannah on its feet with a set of two-step numbers and nouveau zydecos. Within minutes, the placed looked like a Louisiana dancehall with couples eagerly taking to the floor showcasing how well Savannah can dance!

The global reach of the festival became most apparent when Malian kora master Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Ségal took the stage later that night at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. Next to Toumani Diabate, Sissoko is likely the greatest kora player in the world. After missing his first flight, there was a scramble to get Sissoko to the gig on time (just 45 minutes before the show I was told he was still going through security in the airport!). Arriving just minutes before the start of the show, Sissoko, dressed in a shimmering boubou, seemed as calm as a frog in the sun. He was accompanied by Vincent Ségal, a classically trained cellist who has branched out to play with the likes of Sting and the dub/trip hop group Bumcello. The two played a mesmerizing set of original and sophisticated compositions blending the music of West African Mande griots and classical European styles. Although I normally only listen to classical music when I’m in the dentist’s chair, Ségal is what I can only describe as an elegant badass on the cello – swinging back and forth between graceful melodic phrases to sometimes raw, pleasantly distorted licks and funky, West African-tinged bass riffs. Sissoko didn’t disappoint, either. Effortlessly summoning a range of sounds from the 21-stringed kora that at times, sounded regal and polished while at others moments coming off unprocessed and coarse like a Delta bluesman finger-picking a National guitar. It was truly spellbinding to hear these two virtuosos as they brought to life a novel “Afropea” soundscape with “‘Ma Ma’ FC” and “Wo Ye N’gnougobine” among the standout songs of the night.

Lionel Loueke (photo by Frank Stewart)
The evening concluded with a riveting set of original material by the Lionel Loueke Ensemble. Created by Robert Sadin and performed exclusively for the SMF, the ensemble includes Benin guitarist and latest jazz sensation Lionel Loueke, Mark Feldman on violin, Vincent Ségal on cello, Charles Pillow and Walter Blanding on reeds, Senegalese percussionist Thiokho Diagne and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Loueke is a rare talent, he uses an alternate tuning and sometimes places a piece of paper between the strings to get a sound more akin to a kalimba than a guitar. Comfortable playing complicated time signatures, intricate jazz harmonies, and traditional West African melodic gems, Loueke is also known for his own unique vocal clicks, smacks, and baritone grunts which he can do all in a single song. Diagne was only allowed short bursts of thundering percussive accompaniment but his powers were not diminished. Meanwhile, Baptista resembled a slightly mad hawker of trinkets during carnival season, constantly digging into his magical grab-bag of percussive accessories (ceramic vessels, miniature bells, shakers, key chimes, friction drum, vacuum cleaner hose, etc.), often only to make the tiniest of sonic accents. Feldman gave a blistering violin solo and Ségal, Pillow, and Blanding left me wanting more.

Sissoko & Segal (Photo by Frank Stewart)

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