Malian kora master Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal started the welcomed sit-down and meditative evening at the Trustees Garden with psychedelic musical fireworks that sounded like they were coming from a distant horizon.
I arrived with Dominique, my student from Savannah State University, a couple of minutes late, and from outside the black curtains that lead to the performance space, the audience at this Savannah Music Festival show was absolutely silent.
Segal, a member of the trip-hop group Bumcello, was picking and strumming and stroking his cello so naturally it seemed that's what it was made for.
Sissoko, who never spoke the entire time, was a mystical enigma plucking the strings of the cosmos.
Next, they played three Malian songs. The relaxed venue of the Morris Center provided a contemplative space to enjoy extraordinary musicianship and be "schooled." In his thick French accent, Segal provided the historical context for us to understand the songs and the troublesome history of Mali, not unlike our own here in the South.
For the fourth song, the duo played a composition for their children who, in their words, "are too busy to see us play." The "playful" song highlighted Segal's virtuosity.
Halfway through the song, he put his cello to the side and stood up, grabbed a percussion instrument I had never seen, and started pacing the stage. It was similar to the "clackers" I played with as a child - two egg-sized balls on a string. I sensed the rhythm he generated with them was surely not as effortless as he made it seem. He took his seat and in the next songs, proceeded to somehow detach a cello string from the neck and played it by pinching it between his fingers, then sliding up and down the string to create a sound similar to a creaking door, or Bugs Bunny struggling on a tight wire.
There was a brief intermission that allowed the audience to return from the celestial plane. A new batch of musicians and their instruments took the stage.
The relationship between the histories of the instruments and the musicians that played them was hinted at, but the reality was that what the audience was seeing was literally a musical and instrumental reparation of the legacy of colonialism.
Cedric Watson, a 30-year-old African-American man, played a German accordion and sang in French Creole while incorporating Native American and Motown R&B stylings. With the help of Dirk Powell, an Appalachian man from Kentucky playing the African banjo, the two performed waltzes, blues and field songs.
A highlight was an old North Carolina field song, "Boll Weevil:"
"Well, the first time I saw the boll weevil, he was a-standing on the square;
Next time I saw the boll weevil, had his whole damn family there; They were looking for a home, they were looking for a home."
It was clear Sissoko, Segal, Watson and Powell all found their ways home through their instruments. And the diverse audience was happy to visit.
I am thankful I was able to give one of my students the opportunity to experience a history lesson through music. She said "it was perfect blend of personality and musical compatibility." Indeed it was.
My only wish was that they all could have played together for an encore.
Chad Faries is associate professor of English and creative writing at Savannah State University. Find him at www.chadfaries.com.