Zambezi dance party bathes winter’s night in sunny melodies

CenterStage at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance hummed with the joyful sounds of the Club Zambezi Dance Party on Friday evening, the first of two performances from the African marimba band last weekend. While Zambezi has a tradition of delighting crowds with the music of the African diaspora on its marimbas and drum sets, the group wanted to expand its repertoire to incorporate jazz, pop, R&B and a number of more modern styles, allowing its music to evolve in conjunction with the movement it represents. In the spirit of inclusion, Zambezi cleared half the stage for the audience to get out of their seats and groove along with the band.

The first piece was a light, breezy tune that let the talent of the marimba players shine. Their mallets bounced brightly off the keys, creating a playful melody that transformed a rainy Williamstown evening into a sun-soaked day at a Caribbean beach. The melody maintained a constant, low murmur to gently warm the crowd into the spirit of the event, with the audience gradually rising to fill the dance floor. As the first song faded, the marimbas gave way to the voices of the group, which mimicked the marimbas with their low, resonating humming.

The next song charged forth with a shocking burst of energy. The stage lights cast wild patterns and CenterStage was helpless to contain the infectious beat or the incessant clanging of the marimba. The instrument’s joy bounced off the players’ mallets, filling the corners of the room and inspiring the crowd to flood the dance floor. The chaos of the instruments gave way to a single marimba, contrasting the uproar of the beginning of the song with the controlled, deep resonance of the soloist.

The band then replaced its breezy beats with a soulful jazz tune. The marimbas draped a smooth, sensual serenade that recalled a saxophone over a dominant, driving drum beat. The vibrant melody tickled in the background as the drums took center stage, combining traditional African drums with a modern set to demonstrate precisely how far the culture of the African diaspora has traveled. The rich, vibrant combination echoed the sounds of a Brazilian street party, with the marimbas joyously calling to one another across the room.

Next up was a piece that began with a deceptively deep and focused melody only to unleash a frenzied, exultant response from the marimbas. Their jubilant jangle refused to be quelled by the jostle of the maracas and sparked a spontaneous conga line from the thrilled audience.

The fifth piece was decidedly less energetic, briefly allowing the audience to simmer. The drums steadied the tune and a playful, mischievous melody wove through the driving percussion. The subdued tone did not last long, however, as the marimbas soon brought the piece back to the lighthearted fare that is Zambezi’s ticket. A pop music strain pulsed gently in the background, tying the traditional African music to a more modern sound.

The group’s next song opened with a solo from the deepest bass marimba, but the drums quickly burst into the phrase, drawing inspiration less from a traditional African beat and more from the clamor of rock and roll. The marimbas tinkled lightly over the beat, but the melody they maintained was entirely distinct. The combination sounded almost as though two songs were merely being played on top of one another, united solely by happenstance.

The drums took a breather in the seventh song, letting the talent of the marimba players stand alone. The tune assumed the instrument’s characteristic sun-soaked, carefree ease, encouraging the audience to give in to the lightheartedness of the melody. Without the tight hold of the drums, the marimbas fully embraced their trademark smooth levity.

In the night’s closing piece, the drums more than made up for their absence in the previous song, fiercely pounding out energy and igniting the room. The marimbas were not to be upstaged, however, melding perfectly with the drums and filling the stage with the vibrant intensity of the instruments. With its infectious energy, cheerful harmony and irresistible exhilaration, the song was the perfect ending to a carefree night that was reminiscent of warm summer days passed beneath a palm tree and disturbed only by the gentle tickle of the ocean breeze.

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