The Music Haven Concert Series opened Sunday night with Pape Diouf, a Senegalese singer considered the world’s leader of the music Mbalax. Sunday a large crowd received a full dose — and education — of this high-energy, feel-good dance music that merges the traditional rhythms and melodies of Senegal and Gambia.
The group, in its first Capital Region appearance, played uplifting dance music laced with bright and upbeat chords on top of a thunderous beat driven by four percussionists — all 10 limbs (counting the set drummer’s feet) working hard and fast.
The music was happy and inspiring. The night had most of the crowd dancing, and those that didn’t dance likely had a foot tapping away to the contagious rhythms.
Diouf sings often with a big smile, sways to his music, and uses sparse phrasing to let the rhythmic mayhem dominate.
His English was limited, so he spoke and sang mostly in his native Wolof. Midway through the show, he tried his best with English: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” he sang over and over, slowly, until the place was clapping and dancing, the band jamming underneath with their rumbling drums and jumpy guitar rhythms.
The songs, even the simple ones like this — if you could call it a song — had numerous layers underneath the top. A single hand drummer’s riff would emerge, rise above the fray, and then sink back into the larger rumblings, then another drummer would surface before vanishing back into the wall of drum sounds. At its best, it was exciting. And you didn’t have to always pay attention to understand the instrumental exchanges; you could check in anytime, unlike, say jazz, which follows a more linear pattern.
Occasionally the guitarist and set drummer rose to the top, offering a very western sound. But soon that feel faded back into the more dominant West African rhythms.
Band members took turns singing and speaking into the mike, their English limited as well, but each had a few tricks, some rapping in their West African language, some leading exotic dance sessions, and others just chanting joyously and raising the energy for the moment.
Along with the percussionists, the group included an electric guitarist and a keyboardist, who covered the bass lines and other bottom-end sounds. A few vocalists came and went through the show.
The percussionists were busy all the time, filling the sound and creating the momentum. The drummers during their most challenging moments sported big smiles and generated feelings of joy as they built the thunderous crescendos, the music as much a celebration as it was a song.
People were invited to dance on stage, and they came and went as they pleased, most of them impressive dancers. A few dancers in the audience held up a large Senegalese flag as they danced.
Audience members ran up to hand Diouf dollar bills, a West African tradition. In one tune this amounted to a pile of bills that he graciously accepted with his gigantic smile.
It seemed refreshing that Diouf sang in a language few of us knew. We enjoyed the elements of the rapping and chanting — the texture, the emotion, the energy — without the distraction of the verbal message.
Umoja opens show
Schenectady-based Umoja, a West African dance and drumming act, opened the show for a wonderful array of hand-drums and dance. A narrator introduced each number, explaining the purpose of the dance, some communicating jubilee or loss of the homeland, for example. The drums were aggressive and fast-tempo, often frantic, the female dancers jumping, moving their upper body as fast as the beat called for. The final tune called on each of the five dancers to solo, the drummers catering to their individual styles and strengths.
What seemed like an imminent storm before the show, which threatened again during the show, never happened. Instead, it was near perfect weather for opening night.
There are five more shows in the Music Haven Concert Series, led by Mona Golub, each one taking you to another part of the world. Call Sunday night spiritual, cultural or political. In the end, it was pure fun.