Kusika and the Zambezi Marimba band at Lasell

On Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6, Kusika and the Zambezi Marimba Band put on their annual fall concert. A mixture of African dance and music, the show, which ran just over an hour, was both entertaining and lively.

In the opening piece, “Un Appel” (“A Call”), the Kusika dancers and drummers let everyone in the audience know that what they were about to witness was an overwhelming amount of emotion and energy. It was a great example of what traditional African music is all about: unison playing, strong technique and complex polyrhythmic sounds that tell stories and call people to dance and enjoy themselves. This set the mood for the remainder of the show. It was quite intense.

A traditional dance, “Lamban,” choreographed by Kusika director Sandra Burton and musically arranged by guest arranger KweYao Agyapon, was a wonderful follow up to a great start. The show was taken to a higher level by dancers in brightly colored, free-flowing robes (called mbub). The music and dance told an age-old story of a hajj in which an emperor and his many subjects struggled to get home.

The dancers skillfully illustrated hardships of desert travel as they fought through winds and sand storms with swooping hands and firmly planted feet. They made what was an arduous and life-threatening task seem beautiful. Not only was I amazed by the dance, but I was also amazed by the way history can be shared through such an inviting and warm medium. Class enthusiasm might skyrocket if Williams history professors tried this approach to teaching!

After that history lesson, instruments made of carved-out wood adorned the stage. The Zambezi Marimba Band, led by professor of music Ernest Brown, was ready to contribute to this satisfying event. The first song of this set, entitled “Mangwanani” or “Good Morning,” was light and fast-paced. This feeling was accentuated by incredible improvisations from everyone in the band, and a first-year with baby dreads enjoyed a solo where he closed the song with a smile that made the crowd giggle.

The atmosphere created by that piece did not prepare me for what followed, because the next thing I knew, there were four guys under a spotlight pouring their hearts out through drum rhythms. At its high points, this improv was full of fire and the crowd ate it up, cheering them on. The last song of this set was highly entertaining, because it sped up to an impossible tempo and stayed there. This allowed Zambezi to show off its skill with some high-speed harmony.

Next up was “Women’s Dance,” a celebratory dance that was created to celebrate a rite of passage into womanhood, choreographed by Instructor Chuck Davis. At this point I was about ready to jump out of my seat and join the troop; then Zambezi came back on stage and invited the audience to join them. Audience members streamed on stage and we jammed to a witty song about a baboon, a tune that might have been the original boogie-woogie, and a song about bootleg liquor in 1950’s Zimbabwe. The latter invited hand claps and foot stomping as drummer Jeremy Da ’03 and a baritone marimba player, Robert Michelin ’03, fed off of each other’s excitement in Zambezi’s last blaze of glory for the night.

The adrenaline was still rushing when we returned to our seats and listened to the Kusika drummers play the music for Gahu, a 120-year old social dance where the dancers had a good time greeting each other and exchanging partners to movement changes dictated by the drumming soldiers on stage left.

We then got a chance to catch our breath during an attention-grabbing folktale about a clever spider recited by Lesley Clarke. She captivated at least 25 children, which is no small feat, as she explained the origins of the dance that would end the show, “Kpanlogo.”

We could not have asked for a better finale to this show. It was packed with intricate beats, smiles, excited gyrations and a great solo, filled with acrobatics and some break dancing skills, by Andy Chiu ’00. As I looked at the stage I saw a drummer in the back line of percussionists, sporting an afro, doing some serious jamming. He, along with the incredible students not mentioned, was a great example of how infectious the music and dance of this show was.

The show was a great season opener for this year’s dance and music concerts, and the following shows should be just as exciting because they will share the same enthusiasm and dedication that the students of Kusika and Zambezi put into this weekend’s entertainment.