As regular readers will know, I was bitten by the Afropop bug a few years ago at the Savannah Music Festival and haven't really been the same since. Once bitten, there's no going back -- the music is so rich, so playful, so complex yet so effortless, and so fun that nothing else quite does the trick anymore.
Friday's celebratory, transcendent concert by Malian master Salif Keita and his amazing band at the Trustees Theatre was yet another example of how other genres of music just seem to pale in comparison.
Mali -- home of the legendary Timbuktu of adventure novel fame -- seems to be a particular hotbed for incredible music, apparently due to its location at the crossroads of Muslim North Africa and the more indigenous cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa. You hear both in Keita's music: His own piercing, nasal tenor reminds one a bit of the call from the minaret, while his band's polyphonies are deepest Africa -- a steady straight-time beat overlaid with various time signatures simultaneously, blending together into one hypnotic, swirling pulse.
There's nothing like a big band to play that big beat, and this one was big: Three percussionists, two guitarists, keys, bass, a kora player, and two gorgeous female singers -- "backup singers" really doesn't do them justice, since, as is the case with a lot of Afropop, they do much of the heavy lifting on the melody while the lead vocalist, in this case Keita himself, lilts and chants his voice above them.
The stage presentation is part of this all-encompassing show, which is more of an experience than a mere concert. Unlike some African acts which often come out in quasi-traditional garb, Keita's young band could have walked onstage from any street in any large city in America, with their stylish braids and distressed dark denim. The smoothly swaying singers wear Western hairstyles and conservative, yet fitting, black dresses.
Keita himself wears all white, including a white panama hat, accentuating his albino skin and making him literally shine onstage. Despite his small size and unathletic look, he gives off a vibe that -- and I mean this in the best way -- is sort of gangsta. His air of quiet mischief, his imperturbable gaze, and his total economy of movement remind me of a cat. A cat the other cats don't mess with...
I'll be honest here : I couldn't tell you the names of any of his songs, the vast majority of which are sung in French and virtually unknown to American audiences (Keita is a superstar in Africa). But it didn't matter to anyone in the small but very appreciative crowd, which took only a little prompting from Keita to stand up and dance to his infectious, irresistible music for virtually the entire show.
(Specifically, when he said it wasn't really his birthday but he decided today was his birthday anyway. So, to celebrate his "birthday," he insisted that everyone stand up and dance. Who could resist giving a birthday present like that?)
After a rousing initial set of serviceable and danceable numbers featuring Keita's dominating voice, he and the band almost abruptly left the stage. The audience called him back for an encore, little knowing that over half the show was left to go.
Keita returned to the stage by himself, with only a see-through amplified acoustic guitar with a high capo. He proceeded to fingerpick beautifully on the guitar, modulating his voice down to an angelic, more traditional tenor. It was quite literally heavenly.
Beginning with the two singers, the rest of the band eventually joined him again, and this was where the real fun started. The remainder of the show was probably only two or three songs, but they featured extended, wildly entertaining solos from members of the band.
The kora player in particular -- it's a large stringed folk instrument somewhat similar in sound to a banjo -- drove the crowd nuts with his Hendrix-meets-Angus Young routine.
This wild Afropop dance party reached its ultimate high point when Keita invited literally dozens of members of the audience onstage to dance with the band and close the show. You had to see it to believe it.
I really, really hate to introduce even one negative vibe into a review of this world-class, ridiculously fun show. But though it was easily a candidate for best performance of the entire Festival, it was probably the most poorly attended performance as well.
To be clear, nobody cared about this once the music, and especially the dancing, started. The smallish audience didn't affect the band's performance one iota -- indeed, the intimacy may even have enhanced the fun.
I don't know why so many people stayed away from this show, especially considering how many Music Festival patrons I run into at other, more well-attended shows who obviously have little idea who they're coming to see. I certainly don't want to think it had anything to do with the origins and culture of these awesome musicians who gave so much of themselves at this concert.
In any case, I fervently hope that the poor turnout for this show won't discourage artistic director Rob Gibson from continuing his very commendable and clearly very sincere commitment to bringing the best of African artists to future editions of the Festival, as he has done so many times in the past.