Group Saloum fails to impress

Last Friday, the College hosted Senegalese afro-pop band Lamine Touré and Group Saloum for a concert in Chapin Hall. The group plays a form of mbalax, a genre connecting traditional West African sabar percussion with modern influences from jazz, soul, rock and Latin music. The band, led by Touré, featured a rhythm section of electric guitar, bass, keys and drum kit, as well as three sabar percussionists and two vocalists, both including Touré.

Lamine Touré failed to resonate with me in a meaningful way. Here’s a basic rundown of the band’s structure and basic mechanics. The rhythm section carried across the band’s rock and funk influences, laying the foundation for the songs’ melodic progress with standard comp rhythms and improvisational counterpoint, a feature most precisely related to jazz in a historical sense, but which has broad reach these days. Touré, between his vocals and his leadership of the sabar section, dominated the ensemble sections of the band’s songs, often returning to the technique of call and response between vocals and sabar. The rest of each song was left open for solos from the rhythm section and occasionally the sabars. Songs of this form comprised the majority of the group’s 90-minute set, with frequent but brief sabar interludes from Touré.

In a sense, Lamine Touré is what is sometimes referred to as a “jam band.” Basically, each member of the band knows what he needs to know for each song and Touré controls the rest. They know the harmonic properties of each section, they’re familiar with important rhythmic motives and they know who solos when and they have a general sense of how long the solo will last. Touré controlled the transitions between different sections by placing his vocals, by flashy percussion fills and by non-musical communication at times. The casual observer might not notice, but the individual members of the band had a lot of autonomy and the success of the band relied on constant communication. This past Friday, I occasionally saw some of the mistakes characteristic to these sorts of bands, the sorts of things jazz ensembles teach you to cover up as best you can but which do not go unnoticed amongst fellow musicians.

To be fair, the above description essentially fits a lot of great bands. This sort of centralization of musical leadership, allowing for individual members to show their creativity, is based on the same principles that have governed jazz groups for decades, and everyone makes mistakes. However, for me it was just too simple. I’m no authority on discerning harmonic structures by ear, but it hardly seemed like the band used more than four or five chords per song. Looking back, this made it difficult to distinguish between the different songs they played. The band changed rhythmic motives in each section, but lost excitement due to the repetitive chords.

The vocals were more than adequate, but they were not extraordinary enough to override any existing problems. I would want to say that the sabar section was the band’s saving grace, but I had to strain to hear them just three rows back from the speakers and the stage. Not only were they poorly mirophoned, but the acoustics in Chapin simply do not lend themselves to that sort of sound. Quick precise movements tend to get lost in the muddy acoustics if not playing alone. Given the difficulty of an ensemble in this space, some of the most exciting moments were when Touré showed off his talent for percussion in between songs.

However, for the casual audience member, Laime Touré offered an entertaining evening. Though tentatively at first, people were up and dancing from the very beginning of the concert. Touré invited some audience members on stage and showed them what the uninformed must assume are traditional Wolof dance gestures, Touré being of the Wolof people of West Africa. The crowd seemed enthusiastic to participate, and I heard a lot of impressed exclamations as we filed out of the building.

As a jazz musician, you would have been disappointed by the strikingly uninventive solos. As a composer, you would have been disappointed by the tired old pop ruts the band wheeled around in. As a percussionist, you would have been disappointed at hardly being able to hear the sabar section. But if you were none of those things, it was probably a pretty fun show.