When percussionist Zorkie Nelson told of earning his visa to enter Canada from Ghana by demonstrating his percussion skill in an immigration office, he conferred visas on the whole crowd gathered to see Diblo Dibala open the 23rd season at Music Haven on Sunday.
Nelson started the show alone playing djembe, but soon gathered a dozen drummers alongside; novices or experienced, they were all soon playing three against four, then six against seven, then syncopating. Nelson had transported everyone to his native Ghana and set the table for Congolese guitarist Diblo Dibala.
Dibala has said he was inspired by the great Congolese bandleader Franco (in whose jazz orchestra Dibala apprenticed in his teens), the 1950s Cuban rumba style and jazz guitarist George Benson. All this added up to a thrilling Afro-pop party, spiced with the sweet sting of trebly high-speed guitar. An in-demand sideman before forming his own bands — he played Music Haven in 1992 with Kanda Bongo Man — Dibala brought a sparse but strong band to Music Haven. Second guitarist Richard often echoed Dibala or dropped terse chord fills in behind the melody, while drummer Oscar and bassist Guma Lakito welded big beats, mostly in four. Dibala also brought two spirited dancer-singers, women whose names I didn’t catch, to lead by example.
A sensational guitarist who used a good deal more distortion and sustain than Benson but a similar graceful swing, Dibala also proved a persuasive, unflashy singer. He alternated zippy Soukous (“shake it”) dance numbers with slower rumbas and zouk numbers, but the slow songs weren’t actually needed for breath-catching as dancers offstage were slow to catch the fire onstage.
Then his manager took over the stage and revved things up with hoarse exhortations and dancing, igniting a spark that Dibala, his band and dancers fanned to impressive heat that completely engaged the crowd. The songs stretched out, the tempos speeding up in each, no matter how fast or slow they’d started. Dibala chose “Maria,” a love song to his wife, to close the show. But he managed to be both tender and terrifically energized in a 20-minute explosion that brought his most fiery playing of the night, a round of solos by all the players — and dancers — spurred by boisterous introductions, then a final all-hands-on-deck dance bust-out with more people onstage than off, dancing so hard you couldn’t see the band — everybody up, smiling and shaking it.
Whoever dialed in the weather delivered a virtuoso performance, and the seats up front filled gradually during the open drumming circle Nelson led, while the grassy, sloping semicircle beyond grew folding chairs, blankets and picnics. Dancers, at house right to start, raised clouds of dust. This one will be hard to top, and not just because of the happy crowd and a top 10 sunset. The irresistible uplift of Afro-pop in highly skilled hands did it, again.
The Music Haven season continues next Sunday with Matuto, a Brooklyn band blending Brazilian, bluegrass and forro, with the Bernstein Bard Quartet opening.