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20 April 2009

Toumani passes on praise & Merce’s velvet suit

merce(photograph via The New York Times)

It was arts & culture weekend at Bemis HQ, beginning with two pieces you might call dance, a practice for which I won’t claim to have any intuitive feel. The subtleties are somewhat lost on me, raised as I was on provocative alt-rock and the adrenaline urge of punk rock. But I’m trying. And this seemed like a perfect opportunity for cross-training, given the fact that the particular auteurs whose works I chose tend to see the world of dance as one with porous borders.

Saturday afternoon at the Guggenheim came my first live taste of theater artist Robert Wilson’s work. Highlights were the stark quality of the stage lights (frequently marked by use of silhouette, occasionally by a kind of epilepsy-baiting flicker effect) as well as the Butoh-like intensity of movement (punctuated by a handful of solos featuring individual performers carrying a short stack of long wood planks across the stage, dropping them to dramatic effect). For my Sunday matinee, I took in my first Merce Cunningham dance at BAM. I was drawn in by the music (Sonic Youth with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones) but once there found myself more riveted by the frequent push toward physically impossible movement and, during the curtain call, by Merce’s velvet suit. (See photo, above.)

By far, however, the highlight of the weekend came last night, Toumani Diabate at Le Poisson Rouge. A Malian musician, Diabate has collaborated with pop stars (Bj√∂rk, Damon Albarn) and world-champion instrumentalists (Roswell Rudd, Bela Fleck, countryman Ali Farka Toure), but he is less a sideman than a master in his own right. More after the jump…

Diabate’s chosen instrument, the kora, is traditional to West Africa, made with 21-strings of wire strung along a long neck, resonating through a base made of a calabash gourd covered in cow skin. It sounds a bit like a harp, and operates a bit like a Delta blues guitar, creating sheets of sound in the most gentle possible fashion. Last year, the solo instrumental record Diabate made, The Mande Variations made it into my top five, but the band featured yesterday was his Symmetric Orchestra, a mix of the ancient (djembe, balafon) and the contemporary (electric bass, electric guitar) striving toward what their band name indicates, a kind of perfectly balanced music both in its internal structure and the relationship it draws between people both on and off stage. The way the kora player interacts with his instrument was a kind of first cue to what we would see — facing the strings, hands rooted to two posts, gourd positioned between the legs, the player doesn’t dominate his instrument, ring sound out of it or whip it around. He merges with it, looks to it, and engages it in conversation.

What I found most novel about the show was how zen-like Toumani was. The anti-Fela, the anti-James Brown, the antithesis of hip-hop, he brought to the stage an entirely different conception of what it was to be a black band leader. Eminently cool and uncommanding he did not come across as dictator. Rather his authority was informal, implicit. There were sections during which you could tell who was boss. At one point the guitarist leaned close and was taught a solo, note-by-syncopated, complicated note. But when one of his singers bowed to him in praise and repeatedly said his name, Diabate would defer; when audience members ran to the lip of the stage and threw cash at the band in denominations of $1, $10, $20 (common practice at African music concerts both here and at home), he beamed beatifically like an African Buddha, scoffing at the notion that they merited such fealty.

“Culture is not the book,” he said when the band returned from break and commenced upon a long encore. I think that line was the key to unpack what was playing out on stage. Though the music was ecstatic, heedless, cause for dancing, there was also something academic about it, filled instructional passages and transactions between fellow performers. The audience and band members were students; Toumani was the teacher.

He was not just playing for the glory of it but to tell us something. This music is “past meets present for future” he said, explaining where each of his bandmates were from, joking about the percussion player “kidnapped from California” but emphasizing they were all beyond national boundaries, representing “the blood of the Mande empire” in reference to West Africa’s pre-Colonial golden age. In saying this, Toumani reminded me a bit of the Dalai Lama, a man exiled from his country, but using his quiet authority to attempt a similar experiment. Both men seem to understand that, in the contemporary landscape, cultural survival is best insured not by xenophobic protection of one’s borders and traditions, but by turning that culture into a seed of awareness — one which travels through air to distant lands, cross-pollinates, and insinuates itself into the heartstock of new true believers.

Below is a short clip of Toumani playing. This morning I also happened upon an NPR report on his collaborations with the American bluegrass musician Bela Fleck. Both well worth watching, though not nearly as rewarding as it was in the flesh.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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