tabla, ngoni, sarangi, djembe

Rainy night for Indian music at the Flynn

It’s been a big week for music. A big week for big music.

(Tuesday night, 7:30pm – Flynn Center in Burlington)

“Breath: the first rhythm”

With those words, master percussionist Taufiq Qureshi launched a two and a half hour exploration of (mostly) traditional percussion, violin and sarangi music with his brother, Zakir Hussain, and five other of India’s top musicians.

There were times during the evening as solos were traded off among the musicians when I closed my eyes to to follow the complex layers of rhythm, spinning themselves into tight cocoons of texture, before unwinding and rejoining to form new strands with other players. Tension, release, tension, release – the cyclical patterns native to North Indian music are familar, prescribed, but always made fresh again in the hands of each artist.

That’s reason enough to go out of your way to get to an Indian music concert, but this particular show also had much more going for it: Zakir Hussain is one of the best tabla players in the world. He’s an artist I first came to know through his 1970s Shakti recordings with guitarist John McLaughlin. Hussain has been recording for over 40 years now and collaborating with everyone from Mickey Hart to Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, and many Western classical orchestras. Add another six players of equal ability into the mix for this week’s concert, and that’s a party.

Were the sets and solos too long? I didn’t think so but it’s a comment I heard from a few others who were there. I feel the same way about ‘long’ movies – more for your money, right? It’s hard to complain about that. In the case of Tuesday night’s luxurious, extended explorations I can’t really imagine how that could have been condensed in any way. It was a long concert for a Tuesday night, at the end of a long work day. All the more reason to appreciate it. A normal Tuesday night would still come at the end of a long work day, but it would probably be a lot less entertaining, and include some preparation for the next work day followed by an early bedtime. This night was just music, music, glorious music.

Ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate

(Wednesday night, 7:30pm – Flynn Space in Burlington)

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba entered the world stage a couple of years ago when their release Segu Blue earned the prestigious BBC ‘Album of the Year’ and ‘African Artist of the Year’ awards along with many other nominations. For some reason it can be difficult for African instrumentalists to earn the same degree of recognition as vocalists, so when this recording rose to the surface it was a real – and really well-earned – triumph.

Let’s start with the name of the group that Bassekou Kouyate has assembled: Ngoni Ba. The ngoni is an ancient instrument native to the griots (djelis) of West Africa, a long, generally

Ngoni ba (the "big ngoni"), left

4-stringed construct with a hide-covered body. It’s an ancestor of the modern banjo. “Ba” means “big” in the native Bambara language of Mali, and refers to the bass ngoni of Bassekou Kouyate’s own design that makes his group wholly unique.

Bassekou himself is a descendant of lineage equal to that of his instrument: he comes from generations of ngoni players including his father, a master of the instrument. His wife Ami Sacko lends her powerful vocals to the ensemble, as do three other ngoni players and two percussionists (on djembe, calabash, gourd shaker, you name it). What a setup for a second night of musical adventure.

The Flynn Space was as full as I’ve ever seen it, with an audience that transformed from rapt and unmoving to loose and grooving as the bluesy, soulful sounds took root and flourished. By the last couple of tunes everyone was standing and dancing, and it propelled the musicians into an even more engergetic encore.

The new recording from Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba is I Speak Fula. It’s on order, so listen for it soon on World of Music!

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