“Tonight’s concert takes us to one of the world’s most remote places … a tiny commune about 5,000 miles from here, on the other side of the Sahara Desert,” said Mona Golub, introducing Les Filles de Illighadad to the stage of the GE Theatre at Proctors on Thursday evening.
Golub is the producing artistic director of Music Haven, which brings groups from around the world to Schenectady’s Central Park each summer. The Passport Series tides over world music fans during the year with global acts on the intimate Proctors side stage.
The black-box theater setting, and the hushed reverence of the crowd, meant all eyes were quietly on Les Filles de Illighadad as they launched into their otherworldly desert blues music, a richly layered sound that wove the voices of the four members in and out of hypnotic percussion and the haunting psychedelic guitar of group founder Fatou Seidi Ghali.
Ghali is the first woman from Tuareg, a Saharan region in the African nation of Niger, to play guitar professionally. She started the band, which plays a form of Berber folk music, with her cousin Alamnou Akrouni, who sang and played tende, a traditional Tuareg goatskin drum. Fatimata Ahmadelher contributed guitar, vocals and percussion. And Fatou’s brother, Abdoulaye Madassane, joined on rhythm guitar.
The group’s name literally means “the women of Illighadad,” the name of their small rural village. It’s communal music, meant to be played during celebrations and as a call-and-response among women singing about what’s happening in the village — a participatory form of music where everyone in the village sings, dances and plays along.
By contrast, the staid and respectful crowd at Proctors may have seemed alien to the performers at first, but Les Filles de Illighadad soon had crowd members joining in by getting them to clap along to tunes like “Inigradan,” a love song, as well as “Eghass Malan” and “Abadrarass.”
A centerpiece of the group’s music is the askalabo, a drum — or calabash — made of a hollowed-out round fruit, cut in half and submerged in water in a tub. Group members, who swapped instruments multiple times, swung a mallet to pound it with a heavy precision mimicking the thunder of camel hooves.
Camels sometimes sit behind them while they perform and make noise, or are incorporated into dancing rituals, members of the group said through translators after the show at a “meet and greet” in the lobby.
Theater lights glinted off the shiny, colorful silks that members of the group wore, and they closed almost each number with a polite “merci.” It was transporting music that could take you away to another place, the drumming rolling over you like waves as the guitar cut evocative and meandering lines through the grooves.
As the show approached the end after about an hour, crowd members were standing and dancing. To the members of Les Filles de Illighadad, this seemed like a much more natural reaction to their music, and they started to smile more and play in a more heated way as crowd members left their seats to dance by the side of the stage.