Is it hot in here, or is it just Acoustic Africa?
The good kind of global warming came Alverno College Friday night, in the form of a summery concert by Acoustic Africa. The joyous octet of musicians from from Mali and Zimbabwe had the audience dancing in the aisles of the Pitman Theatre by the third song.
Malians Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum and Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi led the on-stage party. All are singer-songwriters with large, international followings as individuals. Each played the guitar in a style reflecting their culture and the essential instruments of their heritage. They seemed to pluck the strings, rather than strum. The resulting music had a familiar upbeat rhythm spiked by a touch of the exotic. A backup quintet comprising percussion, bass and various traditional African instruments gave the concert its distinctive sound.
The guitar and bass drove the music at the beginning and established a familiar rock/pop context. Then Phillip Tsikirai picked up the mbira, or thumb piano, and the music warmed to the kind of lilting sound suggestive of the islands, of calypso, of steel drums and even the sitar.
The versatility of the musicians was notable. Yoro Cisse played the njurkel, a kind of lute, and the njarka, a small fiddle made from a gourd and played with a curved bow. Abdoul Berthe, the bass player, doubled on ngoni, a traditional West African string instrument said to be an ancestor of the American banjo.
Mtukudzi and Koite set up a good-natured rivalry with each other and their two countries, which are far apart on the vast continent of Africa. How could they be considered “neighbors” when their cultures are so different? Clearly, it’s the music, the shared love of songs that provide the link between Mali and Zimbabwe and Africa and the world.
The performers brought an infectious physicality to the stage,in their dancing, strutting and sometimes stomping to the beat of the music. At one point, during a call and response song, they brought their guitars down into the audience, to the crowd’s delight. The Mardi gras mood turned more soulful in Mtukudzi’s haunting Neria, a song he dedicated to the women of Africa and the world. The ringing tones of the mbira enhanced the beautiful melody.
Koite, Bocoum and Mtukudzi were talented guides for a musical escape to distant lands.