Audience grooves to the beat of Zambezi drums

This weekend Zambezi infused the ’62 Center with sounds from a warmer climate as they invited their listeners to celebrate music from the African tradition. The concert was widely attended by parents from the community with young children, but the pockets of college students that turned out seemed to enjoy themselves as well. In his introduction, Ernest Brown, professor of music and director of the marimba band, said that he had only two rules: “Don’t be shy” and “Have a good time.” Brown encouraged the audience to “Get out here and boogie!” which they undeniably did.
The musicians began the concert with a piece from Zimbabwe, during which a couple parents led their children out to the dance floor. Brown played along with the band, blowing a whistle like a train conductor leading the audience off to a far-off land away from the cold. As Rumbidzai Ndoro ’13, a member of Zambezi, sang one of the verses, some students filtered down to the front of the stage to join in the dancing. Ndoro’s liveliness, like that of the rest of the band, was simply irresistible. The musicians were working hard and emitting an overwhelming energy as they spiced up the music with shouts and smiles.
The space was quickly transformed into a tropical paradise by the enormous sound of the band. Creating noises like the calls of tropical birds in their second song “Odoli,” the barefoot members of Zambezi made it easy to forget that snow and not sand covered the ground outside. Later, the band even made use of gobos to create a leafy pattern on the ground, as though the light really was streaming through a rainforest canopy, and Williamstown began to disappear.
Although Zambezi’s music is all out of the African tradition, the band’s members come from vastly different backgrounds, from Botswana to California. Likewise, the band is composed of members from both the faculty and student body. The pieces played by the band varied in terms of region as well as familiarity. While most songs were not recognizable pieces, the band skillfully wove in marimba hits like Richie Valen’s “La Bamba” or Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” The arrangement of almost all pieces the band played is credited to Laone Thekiso ’12 and the Zambezi Marimba Band. Thekiso, who had never played any marimba before joining Zambezi, exhibited remarkable skill in percussion.
Brown continually played instruments that held the tempo down and kept the pace of the high-energy music in check, but the concert certainly showcased the talents of certain individual students. Brad Polsky ’12 graced the stage as the featured saxophonist in “Pata Pata,” a tribute to South Africa’s urban nightlife, and “Zombie,” a Nigerian political commentary. Stefan Ward-Wheten ’11 demonstrated his impressive talent while holding down the melody in “12,600 Letters,” a fusion of African and Caribbean styles, and “The Harder They Come” by Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff. Josh Blanco ’11 heated things up in “Black Magic Woman” with an outstanding solo on the electric guitar. Thekiso was also a stand-out in such songs as “Ndinolila,” which is an arrangement based out of his hometown Gaborone, Botswana.
Meanwhile, the floor had exploded with dancers, some showing off quite impressive moves while others (mostly those under the age of five) simply bounced along to the beat, letting the grooves move their bodies without a hint of self-consciousness. A disco ball kept things moving and the tight rhythms got everyone clapping. A small boy in red track pants, eager for the next song, yelled, “Let’s do it!” before grabbing a younger companion’s hands and swaying with the music. The concert was perfectly designed for a younger audience that has trouble staying seated, and parents must have been relieved that Zambezi provided high-energy entertainment from start to finish.
Though the fast-paced rhythms must have left the band out of breath, they nonetheless finished strong with “Botosi,” a song about the exciting, dangerous lives of gangsters in modern African cities, and “Precious Hai Bo!” a real celebration piece exhibiting the talents of both Ward and Thekiso. Brown sounded a horn, drawing all of the dancers back out on the floor. Band members talked to dancers while they played and danced themselves, blurring the line between stage and dance floor. After they had finished, Zambezi introduced a DJ who brought the promised “dance party” with flashing lights and mash-ups of Zambezi songs and pop hits as audience and musicians came together to discuss the outstanding performance that drew together listeners of all ages.

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