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(Above: Vusi Mahlasela at Live 8.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bela Fleck has taken his banjo to some unexpected forays into jazz, classical and holiday music. For his latest project, not only did Fleck bring his banjo to Africa, but he brought several of his African collaborators with him on tour.

For three hours Fleck and his Africa Project mesmerized a half-full Uptown Theater Thursday night.

Starting promptly at 8, Fleck opened with a 10 minute solo improvisation based on the melodies and techniques he picked up in Africa. After introducing thumb pianist and Anania Ngoliga and guitarist John Kitime from Tanzania, Fleck ceded the stage to the duo. That set the pattern for the night: Fleck’s introduction, a couple solo numbers followed by a couple duets.

Ngoliga’s thumb piano was a wooden box about the size of a sampler with about three dozen metal strips of varying lengths attached. Backed by Kitime’s buoyant acoustic guitar, the pair sang about their native country. After 15 minutes, Fleck came out for “Kabibi.” Ngoliga sang that one in a voice so high it almost sounded like a children’s song. His happiness was so infectious it’s hard to imagine anyone not cracking a smile while listening.

There were only two drawbacks to Fleck’s format. Just as it seemed the performers were getting in a groove, it was time for the next act. Perhaps more frustrating was the high level of entertainment and musicianship from the artists. Each could easily carry a show of their own. With any luck, some of them will come back through again.

On the other hand, Fleck is to be commended for introducing these musicians to his audience. During his set, kora player Toumani Diabate recalled the last time he was in Kansas City … 18 years ago. It is very conceivable this was the first (and only) performance our town will see from the rest of the artists.

Next up was D’Gary and Mario, a guitarist and percussionist from Madagascar. D’Gary’s playing style was like Spanish flamenco married to Ali Farka Toure’s African blues. D’Gary’s playing was virtuosic, yet warm and inviting. He was joined by Mario who played a small tin can filled with glass, sealed and attached to a stick. It may not sound impressive, but somehow Mario managed to turn the simple instrument into an uber-maraca.

After sitting in with the pair for one number, Fleck brought out bluegrass violinist Casey Drieson to join them on “Kinetsa.” Drieson was initially absent in the mix. Frustrated, he walked across the stage and started playing into D’Gary’s microphone. The cheers that erupted were so great that when Drieson tried to retreat, Fleck urged him to take another solo.

(Above: The six-string wonders of D’Gary.)

Vusi Mahlesela came out after a 20-minute intermission. His guitar style was closest to the Western tradition. It’s easy to imagine him in the South African equivalent of a Greenwich Village coffee shop. A former anti-apartheid activist, Mahlesela sang in an expressive tenor. Like most of the performers, he didn’t sing much in English, but he put his whole body into what he said.

The joyous “Thula Mana” was dedicated to Mahlesela’s grandma, who protected him from the Afrikaans police force. If Fleck added the least to this pairing, it is only because Mahlesela’s presence was so complete.

Finally, Fleck introduced kora master Toumani Diabate. A native of Mali, Diabate has collaborated with Taj Mahal and Bjork and was the best-known of Fleck’s guests. Clad in a traditional golden robe, Diabate’s instrument was the most traditional and formal of the night. After a long solo piece, Fleck came out and urged Diabate to explain his instrument. Diabate’s kora looked like an industrial broomstick with many protruding strings stuck in a gigantic half-gourd. After demonstrating the four-finger picking technique (thumbs and two index fingers), Diabate slowly built a song starting with the bassline, adding melody and finally improvisation.

Dierson returned – this time with a working mic – to join Fleck and Diabate on “Throw Down Your Heart.” Banjo and kora work well together because both instruments are treble-heavy and prone to twang. Playing double stops on the low strings, Dierson’s violin was a pleasant counterpoint that added fresh textures.

The night ended with everyone onstage together for an improvised jam and Mahlesela’s “When You Come Back,” a tribute to his home continent.

Western artists have been mining African music since before they wouldn’t play Sun City, but Fleck may be the most accommodating. He acted as less a host than a facilitator who was honored to sit in with his guests.

The collaborations were so organic it seemed they could have taken place anywhere – the studio, living room, outside. They just happened to be experienced in the Uptown this night.

(Below: Toumani Diabate rocks the kora.)

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