On Saturday Night, June 28th 2014, Seattle was treated to a rare and outstanding taste of world class African music, put on by Abdul Ndiaye and African friends of the musicians in Seattle. They held it at the Washington Hall in the Central District. It was a wonderful event, with the musicians on the ballroom stage, and food and beverages being available to the concert attendees.
The featured country at this event was Guinea, West Africa. A number of highly talented Guinean musicians live in Seattle, and Abdul was able to bring in two world famous musicians from Guinea, triple Juno Award winning Alpha Yaya Diallo, and Prince Diabate, master of the Kora, a 21-stringed instrument whose sound falls somewhere between the sonic territory of a harp and a guitar.
We were privy to five performances by Comfort Food Afro-Jazz Group, Naby Camara's Lugni Sussu, Price Diabete and Group, Alpha Yaya Diallo, and Eduard Suarez and Atlantic Melody (who invited some of the other Guinean musicians up for a grand-finale set to end the evening).
First was the Afro-jazz Fusion band Comfort Food, led by multi-instrumentalist Bob Antolin. In full disclosure here, as the keyboards player for Comfort Food, I cannot review the band's performance. Suffice it to say we were quite well received. Other band members were Jaimun Crunk on guitar, Paul Huppler on drumset, and Lennox Holness on bass. Making a guest appearance with us was master percussionist Thione Diop.
Next up was Lugni Sussu the traditional Guinean Band of Balafon maestro Naby Camara. Naby asked me to join the group on a couple of songs, as he and I have a history together doing piano/balafon duet performances.
The balafon is the African xylophone, made of wood and gourds. It is a xylophone - not a marimba - and the sticking techniques and patterns are different from Zimbabwean marimba patterns. The approach to the balafon is more like a jazz vibraphone player, as opposed to a marimba player. The dance floor filled up pretty quickly, as Naby is a world-renowned master of the instrument, and gets people hopping when he plays. Besides me as a guest, joining Naby was Karim Koumbassa on doundounba, Abdullaye Silla, and Eduard Suarin on Djembes. All instruments besides my keyboard (which I set to the xylophone setting to better blend in, and played accompaniment patterns taught to me by Naby) were traditional, acoustic West African instruments.
Next up was the world-traveling, renowned Prince Diabate. Beyond being a master of the kora, Prince Diabate has blown open the musical territory traditionally covered by the kora. His original music is genre-defying, and he stands out like a true guitar hero during his performances. He also had a band full of fantastic musicians, and , like Naby, used traditional African percussion, djun-djun and djembe, instead of a drumset. In addition to his instrumental genius, Prince has a powerful voice that gives his compositions an emotional edge. He definitely brought the people together during his set, again rousing the attendees out of their seats to dance and gather at the stage. Prince's band included Becky Allen on vocals, flutes & gongoman; Bruno Coon on guitar; Brady Millard-Kish on bass; Abdoulaye Silla on djembe & Karim Koumbassa on doundounba w/ Thione Diop as special guest on tama (aka "talking drum").
Here's a youtube of part of the performance:
Prince Diabate at Africa Music Summit Seattle
Pushing the envelope of mind-blowing talent even further, the next band was Alpha Yaya Diallo's three-time Canadian Juno Award winning band. The Juno is the Canadian equivalent of an American Grammy going to the Vancouver -BC resident. Like Prince Diabate, Alpha regularly tours the world, and Naby Camara is actually in Alpha's band as well. He was joined on drumset by master drummer Eduard Suarez, Seattle resident and former member of the famous Bembaya Jazz group of the 1970s, and bassist Vegari Cendar. And as a special guest, sitting in on percussion was Ibrahim Camara of Senegal, an acknowledged master who was attending the show. Alpha does originals and traditional Guinean songs as well. He has an incredible guitar picking style, in which the guitar mimics patterns that might be played on the balafon. These kind of accompaniment patterns are also typical of the mbira (African thumb piano) as well. Where a western guitarist might try to find the chords, the Guinean/West African style arppegiates the chords in a picking style, interspersed with scale runs similar to what a balafonist might play.
Alpha's band is simply phenomenal. Although he is not as well-known as artists like Baaba Maal and Selif Keita, I would definitely put his band on the level with those top-tier groups. A joy from start to finish. And since all the members were also from Guinea, the band locked in together in a way that only happens when you have a group made up of musicians that are all acknowledged masters themselves, that have all grown up in the same tradition from the same culture, and that have played together a lot over the decades. Every song was immaculately performed, and every solo by every bandmember raised cheers from the crowd. Every note a treasure, from start to finish. I have seen Alpha's band on a number of occasions, and it's always like this - consistently the best. No wonder they keep giving him Junos.
For a taste of what this was like, here's a youtube of Alpha performing with Prince Diabate and with Naby on the balafon in Montreal:
Alpha Yaya Diallo, Prince Diabate, and Naby Camara in Montreal
And Pix from the Seattle Summit:
The finale set was billed as drummer Eduard Suarez's Atlantic Melody Band. Eduard has been playing professionally sine the late 1960s, and he was a member of the seminal Bembaya Jazz group coming out of West Africa in the 1970s, a group that was pioneering a new African international sound at the same time Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade would have been developing Afrobeat in Nigeria.
What actually happened, very organically, because so many of the musicians were from Guinea, is that Atlantic melody's set became like a re-union set for all the Guinean musicians. Alpha and Prince Diabate joined the set, and Naby, again, is a band member also of Atlantic Melody. Often Eduard sings from behind the drums, but in this case they brought in Seattle drummer Jamael Nance, maestro of jazz, soul, and world music drumming, and again, Ibrahim Camara sat in adding his expertise on African percussion as well. Comfort Food's bassist Lennox Holness, and Seattle guitarist Leif Totusek also lended their talents to the group.
The show was quite an amazing musical experience. Abdul Ndiaye, the organizer is hoping to organize another African Music Summit again next year. So let's keep our eyes open for the next one!