SCHENECTADY – “Tonight, we speak music,” Bombino’s bassist Youba Dia announced on Sunday, inviting the jam-packed Music Haven crowd into the quartet’s sizzling Sahara blues by insisting language would be no barrier.
Bombino’s guitar soared to an impressively high cruising altitude, syncing listeners’ heartbeats and hips to chiming rings of repetition, beautiful tones circling and circling. Some songs stayed in these orbits of contained chords and punchy rhythms, usually two-against three; especially early in the hourlong set.
Soon they began to explore and explode.
By “Adounia,” four songs in, Bombino started rocketing everything into the stratosphere with variations and imagination. It felt like riding a merry-go-round then spinning off, but together, feeling safe, exhilarated.
Music Haven Concert Series opened on Sunday evening with the Ifoghas tribe, (of the Kel Adagh Tuareg federation) musician Bombino. Second photo, Jude Hutchinson 4, of Schenectady dances up a storm during the performances. pic.twitter.com/egxTpLAjDm— Marc Schultz (@DawgJazz) July 9, 2018
Dia’s invitation also acknowledged few would understand the words, but the music itself spoke clearly. Bombino sang in Tamasheq of the longing of Tuareg exiles for home and peace, of sadness in mourning the fallen and of deep love for family and land. Early on, the sinuous “Ashuhada” paid tribute to “Martyrs of the First Rebellion,” a tribal war in Bombino’s native Niger that claimed several kinfolk.
Even songs that didn’t fully lift off had careening momentum, so dancers joined the music. The band responded eagerly: Songs grew longer and surged further outside into mood and momentum. This energized the dancers in a transcontinental, transcultural feedback loop. Polyrhythms pulsated like reggae, and EVERYBODY can dance to reggae; there’s no wrong way to ride its beat. “Tehigren” from Bombino’s new “Deran” album hit like an island breeze, moving gently but insistent.
In these universally dance-y numbers and “Takamba,” whose trick-beats echoed the Grateful Dead’s “The Eleven,” drummer Cory Wilhelm (a Boston native Dia said is “American-African”) revved the rhythm. Thunderous snare-shots and relentless hi-hat snaps knocked it out of the park while his kick-drum settled deep into Dia’s hypnotic bass beats. Ilias Mohammed’s rocking rhythm guitar formed the trampoline for Bombino’s leaps into outer space; his tone treble-y like Bombino’s, his beat linked at the molecular level to Dia and Wilhelm.
Innov Gnawa launched the night, and the season, with harmonized chants syncopated against the metallic clatter of double krakebs (castanets), a three-stringed sentir sketching bass lines beneath a busy bustle. More exotic than Bombino’s forceful bluesy punch, this North African music nonetheless won a willing welcome from the open-eared audience.
Bombino harvested echoes of that welcome, built boldly on it and earned standing ovations for the dance-y dazzle of his main set and an encore that filled the last open areas of the newly paved floor between the (also new) stadium seats and the stage.
As Bombino left the stage, the diagonal sweat-shadow of his guitar strap darkened his maroon tunic; but he’d lit up the (perfect) night in a thrilling start to a season that continues next Sunday with Gabacho Maroc in its North American debut and world-beat openers Heard.