It is not often that Williams hosts an arts event that succeeds in questioning and expanding the boundaries of personal experience. African City Rhythms, a vivid mosaic of different ensembles converging into one irresistible experience, accomplished just such a rare goal in its Friday and Saturday performances at Lasell Dance Studio.
The list of ensembles involved is long and impressive: Williams organizations the Zambezi Marimba Band, Williams College Dance Company, Prizm and Kusika were accompanied by acclaimed Afro-pop band Kukudru, whose brass section was in turn supplemented by members of the Williams Jazz ensemble. But the foci of the show’s appeal were clearly two individual performers: Obo Addy and Bernard Woma. At Williams this fall as artists in residence, the two have given both the performers of Williams a tremendous opportunity to explore contemporary and past African music and dance, and the essential connections between the two.
Both of these gentlemen are natives of Ghana, the nation from which most of the music played at the show originated. Addy is Kuduru’s leader, and his vocals and drumming lent the music throughout the evening a propulsive edge. In addition to his skilled performance, Addy demonstrated an acuity for songwriting: he either composed or arranged most of the songs.
Bernard Woma is also a composer; he plays the marimba and the drums, with virtuoso technique and remarkable passion. These two men were the glue that held the show’s diverse tapestry of performers together.
The Zambezi Marimba band performed the first pieces of the evening, the only works that came not from Ghana but Zimbabwe. The ensemble of six played marimbas of varied pitch; one player would make a melodic statement and the others subsequently add harmonic or rhythmic embellishment. The result was a rich contrapuntal texture that achieved a sense of variation not through different strains of melody but through constantly changing instrumental emphasis. The band exhibited a strong command of dynamics in a routine that demanded synchronicity: only occasionally were there glitches in timing.
Obo Addy and Kuduru followed Unlike Zambezi, Kuduru’s lineup was complex, consisting of keyboards, guitar, bass, a horn section and percussion. Much of the music was clearly influenced by Western jazz and blues tradition, but it was always delivered distinctly and cohesively. The mood of the pieces was, by and large, celebratory and upbeat: lyrics spoke of hope, courage, games and life. A vast triangle of singers centered the first piece, “Awo Awo,” a song of blessing. With Kuduru in the background and Obo marshalling the front, the band launched into a steady groove propelled by ample percussion. Obo called out the blessing in a voice that accentuated of impressive timbre and style. As the choir responded in kind, the piece took on an almost transcendentally uplifting quality.
The second piece, “Obonu,” was introduced as the royal ceremonial music of the Ga people of Ghana. The piece achieved a remarkable sense of rhythmic variation, achieving a beautiful complexity through percussion alone. Obo led the percussion section’s charge remarkably well-measured force.
It is clear that many of the pieces are dance-oriented. One of the most memorable examples of this consisted of two contrasting sections of traditional and contemporary sound. In the first half, a bandmember came out and jammed (in women’s clothing, incidentally), shifting his torso and legs at rhythmic intervals. The dancer’s sheer joy in the inexorable percussion was a pleasure to see. The piece soon ventured into more contemporary stylistic territory, at which point the dance company appeared and accompanied the more familiar sound.
Bernard Woma aided Obo with impassioned percussion expertly played throughout, but it was his solo turn on the Ghanian xylophone that really caught the crowd’s attention. Throughout his loose but structured performance, Woma accompanied himself with accentual, almost percussive vocals. As the piece progressed, Woma articulated a harmonic line of startling, pristine beauty. And the man did not stop; excitement grew as the audience as the audience hung upon his every note. When he ended the crowd roared its acclaim, celebrating his mastery and showmanship.
Audience approval reached its height, though, after the climactic finale, which united all of the performers in one intense spectacle. Near its end, with the musicians drumming furiously and the dance groups caught in full swing, a male percussionist rose from his drumkit and moved to center stage. Flailing his entire body, doing hand flips and otherwise leaping all over the dance floor, he worked the crowd and the bandmembers into a frenzy. Not to be outdone, Obo then began to dance with some audience members himself. Before leaving the stage, though, he brought the procedures to a temporary halt. He gave us his regards and informed us that the music would go on, to move to as we wish, as a wonderful gift.