Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Throw Down Your Heart
Coffee and sleep are the same right?
Well no, not really. I discovered that when I stumbled into what I thought was my morning class today.
I had my glasses off, because when I come in to heated buildings out of the cold (aside: it is STILL snowing) they fog up and I can't see anyways. Squinty eyed and slump-backed I feel for the door knob to the classroom and settle my glasses on my nose on as I walk to my usual seat. That's when I noticed the class was a lot smaller, and we had a different teacher today. I give my friend Adam a nod and weary smile and slip my purse off my shoulder-
-wait, Adam isn't in this class with me.
Not only did I go to the completely wrong class, I went at the wrong time. Which is why I am writing to you, because I now have thirty minutes before my actual class. Brilliant. (I would have had an hour, except when I realized what I'd done I went straight to the coffee shop for another hit.)
Trial and error. I Tried going dancing after the concert last night, and crawling into bed at 2 AM too tired to even preload the espresso machine. This was an Error. I found out exactly how much of an error it was in my 9 AM class this morning, as my pen slid off a page of notes I had no recollection or comprehension of. Appropriately for my little experiment, the class was research methods. In this case I don't think I need repeated trials to draw a strong conclusion.
Anyway this extra time does give me the chance to share something incredible with you.
The concert last night! You would have loved it so much! Bela Fleck and the Africa project came to Finney Chapel, and I think it's safe to say that nothing quite like this has ever shaken those ancient rafters before. The concert opened with the man himself calmly walking across the stage towards a suddenly hushed and expectant crowd. After greeting the eager crowd ("Hi, how y'all doin?") he selected a banjo from a rack of 5 and perched himself on a stool in the center of the giant stage. When the first notes of his high lyrical melody line reached my ears I had to check to verify that he was really playing. He was incredibly still as this music poured from him, only his fingers fluttering across the strings, hitting harmonics and picking out double stops, sliding and caressing. He was the embodiment of what my orchestra director in high school called "controlled power." His improvisational style was quintessentially Bela, but with undertones of compound rhythms and surprising harmonic elements that foreshadowed the acoustic journey that would follow. When the last notes of his solo faded away, there was a second of stillness before the audience erupted into raucous applause. The applause went on so long that he had to interrupt just to introduce the next musicians, Anania Ngoliga and John Kitime from Tanzania.
Did you know thumb harp can be sexy? It can also be humorous, despondent, pouty, joyful, and full of sorrow. I didn't know either, but now I do. Anania Ngoliga added his soulful baritone, and occasionally his playful falsetto and mad-sounding cackle (complete with hen clucks, imitating the voice of an old girlfriend) to virtuosity on an instrument I did not even know you could attain virtuosity on.
I came into this concert thinking it was going to be like nothing I'd ever heard before. In a lot of ways I was right. When the band from Mali began playing, led by the regal Bassekou Kouate and his captivating wife Amy Sacko, I couldn't even figure out what meter they were playing in for awhile, and still don't know how to pronounce the instruments they were playing. Some things were very familiar however. The improvisational conversations between Kouate (on a small gourd and bone/stick instrument that would have had the lead role of a trumpet in jazz or a mandolin in grass) and Fleck were reminiscent of two jazz greats talking back and stirring each other to greater heights. The vocal technique reminded me of the high and tense harmonies of some of the old bluegrass legends. At some points they were almost yodelling, pitching high and flipping falsetto across the thump of the bass. Then Anania would break through the texture with a low and powerful moan from somewhere deep inside. Though the scale was unfamiliar to me, there was definitely something of the blues in the way Amy Sacko talked to the crowd with her powerfully soulful vocal solos.
It was Bassekou Kouate who gave me my favorite moment of the whole concert, at the climax of one of his improvised solos. He was winding high, with Bela in perfect complimentary sync laying ascending chromatic notes in his rests. A strange mix of surging triplets against duples drove the sound forward, and as Kouate reached the top he rolled his head back across his shoulders in what looked like complete ecstasy. He stretched the rhythm and held on to just a few notes, suspended, as the rest of the band oscillated back and forth through chords beneath him, and from my seat in the balcony I felt the lift, tension, and opening up of his line as a physical sensation in my body.
I think it's worth noting that Kouate's gesture at that moment, when he rolled his head across his shoulders, was extremely familiar to me. The last time I saw it, however, I was in a bar in Kentucky, wearing cowboy boots, and I'm pretty sure someone responded by shouting "yeehaw." I'm smiling right now thinking about it. Just goes to show you everything really is connected.
That wasn't the only jaw dropping moment of the night. To open the second set Bela came out and played an entire piece of sliding double stops on his open strings, by rapidly retuning his banjo as the notes sounded. And of course there was Amy Sacko. If anyone knows how to throw down their heart for music, it is this woman. She sang her heart out in the second set, and the energy she commanded sizzled through the air to fill Finney chapel to the brim. When she finished, Bela commented "I don't know what she was singing about, but she really meant it."
There was a powerful driver behind the Malinese band, Ngoni Ba. I'm gonna try and tell you about his instrument, but I don't really know what I'm talking about. One man in the back of the band had what looked like a giant gourd, sawed in half lying on a table. Throughout the night he would alternately scrape his fingertips, rap his knuckles, slap his palms, or slam his fist into the gourd in a combination of rhythms that I could feel in my heart but had no hope of understanding. As the solos surged and pulled over top of this framework (another element that reminded me of bluegrass), he kept completely steady and cool, with forceful movements that seemed to come from his whole body. The poly rhythms of some of the songs in the second set became so infectious that I could not possibly keep my seat any longer. My neighbor and I looked at each other, and in one of those rare moments of perfect understanding between strangers, we stood and practically ran to the aisle where we danced the rest of the show. Later our fast and excited voices would find names and words, our hands would clasp in formal greeting, and we would do all those things that strangers do in our culture. But for the moment mouths were for grinning and our arms for dancing.
What a night!