This morning I am wearing a headache like a skull cap. This is one angry, useless brain bowl. I am also unconvinced that my tea is steeping properly, despite several attempts to relieve it of the air bubble that keeps it bobbing at the surface instead of sinking down and succumbing to thorough saturation.
But what is a headache when you have been to the best concert of your life. It reminded me of the time I was driving and I crested a hill to see the full harvest moon dangling in the sky like a caramelized fruit about to drip. I leaned over the steeling wheel and screamed. I screamed because howling didn’t seem like it would drive enough energy from my body.
Before last night I had never heard of Béla Fleck. I had seen the name Oumou Sangare on the concert bill and everything else went a bit blank. It wasn’t until a few days before the event that I had realized this would be a collaborative gig.
In 2005 Béla travelled through several countries in Africa in a bid to meld the sound of the American banjo to West African stringed instruments like the Ngnoi, the kamalengoni, and the kora. The man obviously knows how to build relationships. I sat there, dumbfounded as I watched three of Mali’s most famous musicians, all of whom I absolutely adore, all on stage together, jamming with the cherub-faced banjo player who had brought them together. Did I mention I was in the front row?
And not just that. Seeping through everything like mist through a glen was the Celtic beauty of gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and Ireland’s Liam O’Faolain (of Hothouse Flowers fame). Stir it up like a stew that would satisfy every palate: American banjo, African rhythms, Gaelic and Bambara lyrics, Irish whistle, and an audience overwhelmed by it all.
Highlights of the night:
-When Béla and Bassekou Kouyate played back and forth, smiling madly at each other. Bassekou, known as the “wizard of the ngoni,” (ngoni: a plucked lute that is the ancestor to the modern banjo), had brought his whole band, including two drummers, two other ngnoi players, and his stunning wife on vocals. To get a sense of the energy of this set, go to Bassekou Kouyate’s Myspace page and listen to the live track.
-Being just feet away from Toumani Diabate as he played the kora, leaning in close to the bulbous base of the instrument and shaking his head slowly back and forth as his fingers flew.
-Watching Béla play with Toumani, the way he could make the banjo compliment the kora. The result was achingly beautiful.
-Liam’s solo. Some people are born with an ancient lament on their tongues, and no matter how many times they try to shed it through song, it will still be there.
-The wonderful, round hip-jutting dancing of Bassekou’s wife. I want to move like her, wearing that easy smile.
-The gleeful tension in the air as the audience waited to see “Mali’s songbird,” Oumou Sangare walk on stage. And then she did, and we all melted a little.
-Liam and Oumou singing tandem breathy chants during the final number when everyone was playing and it was big good madness and Liam was dancing in bare feet and his too-long trousers while Oumou swayed in her colourful dress.
-Finally seeing the instrument that pervades through Oumou’s music. The kamalengoni is a thick-stringed instrument that is played like a guitar but which produces a series of low, deep sounds that can feel sorrowful and groovy at the same time.
-At the end of the group set when the musicians were all congratulating each other and Oumou made a beeline to Kathleen and gave Kathleen’s big pregnant belly a lavish rub that set both women to laughing.
-The encore, when it was just Toumani, Béla and Oumou, and Oumou sang and hit those big, strong notes she is known for. The first one made my eyes go hot with tears and I had to look at the ceiling to make them stop.
You get the idea. Every once in awhile you have the chance to see or hear something that reminds you of our human capacity for joyful, expansive expression. We really can throw all of our toys into the same box and enjoy the best playtime imaginable.
A CD and DVD of Béla’s collaborative adventures in Africa called Throw Down Your Heart will be coming out in the next couple of months. If you fancy something that will inspire the heck out of you, give this a go.
That leaves me to thank everyone for their kind comments on my photos. I finally realized that my penchant for snapshots is getting somewhat out of hand, and unless I want to only post photos on the blog each and everyday, I’ll never get through them, so I’ve organized a Flickr account and will set a link to it in the sidebar, as soon as I figure out how.
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