A young woman danced up the aisle away from the Music Haven stage on Sunday as King Sunny Ade and his African Beats played a groove that tugged the whole huge crowd powerfully toward their homeland, Nigeria. Singing along with the band in Yoruban, she danced into a row and friends there sprang up around her, forming a surging pod, all flying elbows and hair, that followed her back into the aisle, dancing all around her. Onstage, other fans danced among the musicians, sticking cash onto the players’ sweating foreheads in tribute.
At times, the stage looked as if a blizzard of bank notes had hit hard, yet no one missed a beat, onstage or off, in a joyous Afro-pop uproar of outrageous energy and uplift. Only the many Nigerians in attendance could understand the literal meaning of what Ade and his harmony singers chanted over the groove.
Everybody understood the groove, though, even when it shifted directions so that you felt like you were dancing on an escalator that had been still and suddenly started up under you. Like reggae, King Sunny Ade’s Nigerian juju music causes irresistible dancing fever because no matter where you might think the beat is — even if erroneously — there is in fact some instrument there, right on whatever pulse your body feels.
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Sunday’s show fell a bit short of the unanimous whole-body, whole-crowd ecstasy the band has conjured in some past shows, because Ade seemed intent on surveying lots of songs and some seemed almost restlessly episodic with abrupt — and perfectly micro-coordinated — mutations of mood, melody and momentum. As for meaning, that emerged most clearly in melodic shapes or vocal inflections that were linguistically opaque except to the Nigerians but emotionally transparent to everyone.
A consummate showman and mime, Ade offered abundant clues at times. In one song, the singer to his left acted as if he was handing something to Ade, who then passed it on to the singer to his right. As the sequence continued and they all sang in hearty baritones, the gestures mutated: Ade seemed to be greedily stuffing into his pockets much of what was passed to him, rather than passing it on. Indictment of capitalism? Criticism of the music business? Confession of individual misdeeds?
All, or none, of the above — and it was all delivered with as much high-gusto good spirits as the fans’ cash attacks. Other songs clearly dealt with political struggles, personal problems, sex and poverty; and all were compelling as pure sound even if lyrically incomprehensible.
The Umoja troupe of drummers and dancers — all teenagers from Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill led by Susan Dean — opened with 30 minutes of motion and rhythm: as many as six dancers and seven drummers, all individually spirited and spiritedly united. They got a stirring response, and not just from the many friends and neighbors attending this thrilling Afro-centric show on a perfect night.