Last Saturday, wintry Williamstown received a hot, much-needed dose of Afro-urban funkiness. Gokh-bi System, a Senegalese group, performed alongside musicians Sekou Sylla and Tony Vacca at the Clark Art Institute. The event was the first installment of a monthly series of performances by contemporary African artists at the Clark. The experience was about as energetic and jubilant as concerts come.
The advertisements and the playbill hinted that Gokh-bi System (meaning “Neighborhood System” in Wolof) was a Senegalese rap group, but in reality it was much more. Sylla and Vacca hit the stage with Backa Niang, the System’s percussionist, and let loose a rhythmic assault that was a furious, jarring introduction to the coming madness. Using an assortment of drums, maracas and the otherworldly balafon (think a xylophone with gourds, but way cooler), the group displayed a musical prowess that one rarely associates with hip-hop, save for the Roots and their Philadelphia collective.
As the rest of the group danced onto the stage, however, their status as a rap group was evident. Mamadou Ndiaye, the front man, grabbed the mic, saluted the crowd with much rap-star bravado and introduced his group to the excited audience. But, unlike some other rap groups (cough, Run-DMC, cough), they launched right into a lengthy performance.
It began with Sana Ndiaye and his ekonting solo. The ekonting is a traditional southern Senegalese three-stringed banjo, which Sana plucked and gently tapped to produce soft thumps and haunting metallic twangs. This instrument is a part of the tradition of the griot, the traveling storyteller, and was a central element in the group’s music. Throughout the performance, the ekonting provided a beautiful, calm background to the heavy beats and rapid-fire raps of the group. This blend of the melodic and the thunderous, of rural traditions and the urban, is what defined the music of Gokh-bi System.
Tony Vacca, in an exceptional solo percussion piece, provided an equally stirring and varied performance. It began with the watery, sci-fi swells of the balafon, entered into a hip-hop influenced breakbeat of snares and drums and then closed with a final high-speed combination of the two. The fusion of contrasting elements was striking.
The vocal experience was as full of contrast as the music itself. Sana sang in a voice that was low and soft at some times, and at others a nasal wail not unlike a violin. He lead many a call and response, his sweet voice being answered with the thunder of Mamadou and his counterparts, Backa, Diasse Pouye (rap and vocals) and Abdou Sarr (dance). These choruses were followed by the multi-lingual flow of Mamadou and Diasse. Mamadou had a style that was fast and powerful, like an early Christopher Wallace. Diasse had a smoother, twangier flow, reminiscent of Andre from the southern hip-hop band OutKast, but with a more gravelly voice.
It should be noted that Gokh-bi System performed in five languages, so their words were for the most part incomprehensible. However, the performance never lacked impact or emotional content. The songs, prefaced by a few words from Mamadou or Diasse, ranged in themes from disease, to violence, to lost friendship, to love, to celebration, to the beauty of their homeland. Each theme was reflected in the lyrical style, the percussion and the tones of the ekonting.
When Sana sang about the death of a friend, he sang alone with the spooky strum of the ekonting. When Mamadou and Diasse rapped about AIDS (SIDA, since they were rapping in French), the beat was solemn and gritty. As they sang about Africa in one of their first songs, the energy was palpable as it flowed through the auditorium. Sana’s wailing provided a fitting backdrop for the poetic flurry from Mamadou and Diasse. One song, entitled “Reggae,” was especially exciting for this reviewer; while Backa beatboxed (a vocal percussion form well known to hip-hop performers in the US), Diasse channeled Ninja Man, a legend in Jamaican dancehall music, as he traded verses with Mamadou in a lyrical conversation.
In perhaps the most surprising piece of performance of the night, Backa, the percussionist, came from behind his drum set and sang. Backa Niang was tall and broad, and he played the drums like a man possessed. With that image in mind, seeing his imposing figure take the microphone and croon as sweetly and powerfully as R. Kelly â€“ no exaggeration â€“ was a shocking treat.
The dancing of Abdou Sarr and Sekou Sylla â€“ another surprising example of multiple talents â€“ provided the highlight of the night. They danced frequent solos during the faster songs; in fact, the songs themselves often took a back seat to the dancing, which was of a uniformly high quality. Like the numerous drum improvisations, much of the dancing seemed to be done off the cuff, which was fitting for such a wildly energetic performance. Sekou, while clearly not the youngest of the performers, pranced about with an unexpected energy. Abdou outshone him with a performance that was incredibly vibrant and undeniably sexual. He thrust his hips and shook his rear with a virtuosity that I have not seen since the video for “Back That Thang Up.”
Abdou also had a penchant for audience participation; he paced the stage and auditorium maniacally, eventually taking patrons onto the stage to dance up a storm, myself included. The involvement of the audience made the whole event more intimate and fun. It was a great party.
The evening was tarnished by a few minor annoyances. Diasse’s microphone was perpetually underpowered. The rug which was placed on the stage shifted under the pounding of the dancers’ feet, forcing Sekou and Abdou to dance on the edges of the already-crowded stage. This reviewer danced very poorly in comparison. One woman seemed unable or unwilling to control her cute but invasive toddler, who insisted on crawling along the edge of the stage, which was quite distracting. Nevertheless, the crowd was in such a good mood that these bothers were insignificant.
Gokh-bi System was phenomenal, and their style of musical fusion has to be heard to be believed. The performance series of African artists at the Clark is off to a raging start.