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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Of Griots and Dance: Music in our Village

It was my good fortune to hear the Senegalese musician Baaba Maal last night and to experience the creation of a musical village. The crowd was mostly middle-aged white people, with a small African representation. In the end, the 4-500 people who had come as individuals to the Somerville Theatre ended up as members of an ecstatic community. While there was a full battalion of expert musicians, it was Baaba Maal who shaped the experience. The key musical element was, or course, rhythm. The bass line thundered and worked a groove with the rhythm guitar that went through your body. There was a talking drummer, another who played hand percussion, as well as various other African drums and timbales (yes). Then, the unsung rhythm hero-the traps player. Without his continuous rock solid underpinning, the other percussionists wouldn't have been free to go off on their flights of fancy. By the end of the night, several other people had taken the stage to play percussion-some of whom seemed to be known to Baaba, others who didn't. To create a village, it helps to have a griot, and since Baaba left his village as a young man, he has traveled with his. Maal spoke movingly of him, his role in his life and the sense of continuity he gives him to his roots. The griot sang backup, one lead vocal and simply lent a tremendous spiritual presence to the stage. By the end of the night, several people had come on the stage to touch him and to press what was probably money into his hands (someone else came on and hung his tie around the neck of the hand drummer). At first, dancing was sporadic, carried on by some of the Africans and by others who had clearly studied African dance. One white man carried on ecstatically and un-selfconsciously in front of the stage. Near the end of the night, Baaba brought him on stage and gave him the mic. He turned 60 years old that day. Baaba led the audience in "Happy Birthday." Mama, that's the scene I want for my 60th. Another man who came on stage was squarely in the "Gandy-eccentric-dancer" lineage, putting on moves that looked liked illustrations from Ubu Roi or 19th century pre-cakewalk abstractions. Eventually, the stage hosted a succession of men, women and children; black and white, old and young, and 9/10ths of the audience was dancing in the aisles. At the beginning of the concert, Maal had said that he liked to pace his concerts like an African party-starting out slowly, sitting under the mango tree and working up the energy from there. It's one thing for a musician to state so clearly and boldly what he wants to achieve. It's something else to make it actually happen. I had taken one of my youth journalism students and it was his first concert. Gotta say, I may have made it hard for his future musical life by setting the bar so high.

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