ONE OF THE most unique aspects of the Savannah Music Festival is the frequent and always-stimulating unusual double bills – two acts, separated by an intermission, that on paper seem to have little to nothing to do with each other but which in reality work beautifully in tandem.
In introducing Saturday evening’s double bill at the Morris Center, executive director Rob Gibson not only mentioned that, but mentioned that this performance combining Robert Sadin and ensemble with Kasse Mady Diabate and band was likely the most unusual, or certainly unique of them all.
Conducting and addressing the audience between songs was Sadin, arranger of this suite of “Night Songs” presented here by an incredible group of Festival favorites comprising trumpeter/percussionist Etienne Charles, clarinetist Patrick Messina, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Ira Coleman, harpist Jacqueline Kerrod, and all-world Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, who seemed to have a whole Santa’s bag full of unique and colorful instruments at his disposal.
Charles, who headlined a Creole Dance Party at the Morris Center earlier in the Festival, was a particular standout, both with his subtle and seductive trumpet lines and his own percussive mastery. At one point it looked like he was using one of his trumpet mutes as a tiny doumbek, propped between his knees!
The short but impactful tunes were all essentially inspired by various folk traditions, from Turkish to Romanian. Sadin emceed with a delightful and humble sense of humor.
The other part of the bill was another of those amazing concerts of African music that the Festival tries to highlight each year. This year, as in most previous years, the focus is on the music of Mali, an age-old crossroads and melting pot of many musical traditions.
It’s hard to overstate the talent of Ballake Sissoko, one of the world’s top two or three players of the kora, a traditional African instrument best described as a large and intricate thumb harp. Sissoko had played a solo set earlier in the day at the Morris Center, but this night he was more of a supporting player to lead legendary Malian vocalist and griot Kasse Mady Diabate.
Singing in the unique Malian style which combines rapid improvisational chanting with something similar to the Islamic call to prayer, Diabete projected gravitas and humility and an altogether positive vibe.
The backing band, led but never dominated by Sissoko, was simply stellar, and I run out of superlatives trying to describe them.
Makan Tounkara brought the house down with the delightful proto-blues lines he played on the ngoni, essentially an early, three-string version of the banjo. I’ve heard plenty of ngoni players before, but Tounkara was the first to draw a clear musical line for my ear between the music of continental Africa and the playing style of early, pre-electric blues masters such as Robert Johnson and Robert Lee Hooker.
Lansine Kouyate, himself a member of Malian musical royalty, was an explosive wizard on the balaphon, an African style of vibraphone.
The sophisticated, weaving interplay of these simple but tonally gorgeous instruments is part of what makes African music so refreshingly uplifting.
And once again, the Music Festival scores a huge hit with a matchup, that while almost bizarre in theory, turns out to sound like the most natural thing in the world.