My entry into the Savannah Music Festival was two days of African roots storytelling.
The days were mediated in languages most of us attending didn’t understand so we got lost in the unfamiliar rhythms and exotic paraphrases between songs that reminded us we are all made of music, even if some of us couldn’t clap or build the courage to rise out of our seats and shake it for once.
That was an exhaustive sentence, but in a good way. It was an attempt to render you breathless. To make you lighter so that you might feel the weight of something else.
When Noura Mint Seymali begins her Griot incantations, a sound comes up through her belly, pauses in the lungs, lodges in her throat for a beat then blasts off into a Silk Road Psych journey that is both traditional and avant garde.
Of the three performances I am reviewing here, Seymali was surely the most primal, while also the most difficult for the audience to wrap their mind around. Some of this was a language barrier, though some members used their tongues and teeth and ululated in solidarity.
Her presence is regal. Seymali plays a kora-like ardine from Mauritania, reserved only for women. She shifts back and forth and closes here yes and prepares for the next notes with powerful yogic ujjayi breath. She has a sort of stifled hop and raises her hands in the air and the audience falls flat.
At one point she was able to get the audience to vocalize a little with her, but it was admittedly a little difficult for us. It doesn’t matter, because understanding was being communicated musically.
Seymali commands attention swathed in her traditional Moorish dress summoning the poetry that is an evolving conversation between her and the audience. The songs are never entirely sung the same so what we got was entirely unique.
To provide a little context, the liner notes off the new album “Arbina” (whose cover image embodies the contrasting psychedelic traditionalism by superimposing neon shapes over a saturated desert-scape reminiscent of Tatooine) have translations that seem to be more like guideposts for meaning. “Arbina,” the title track is explained as conceptually empowering women in their decisions about preventative healthcare.
It advocates for the concrete task of early screening to prevent breast and uterine cancer, sickness that claimed Noura’s own mother at a premature age, while offering an appeal to the ultimate benevolence of God.
That is a heavy weight for a song. But I know with my own experience with poetic translation that the spirit of the song isn’t being conveyed in any translation. We have to feel it through the message of the unfamiliar rhythms of a different tonal scale.
Seymail is clearly not alone on the stage. Her husband and fellow griot, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, slings a type of ancestral African blues which intimates the sound of the Moorish lute tidinit, tuned through what their label, Glitter Beat, describes as his “electrified counterpoint, his quarter-tone rich guitar phraseology flashing out lightning bolt ideas.” A traditional bass and drum set added a western edge.
By the end of the show Seymali ramped up the power. She swirled her hands above her head as if she were pulling the sounds from the ether and a small crowd joined her in the aisles. She professed peace above all and gave the hand sign but I couldn’t help notice that this was a warm-up to something still rooted in African rhythms and storytelling, yet more palatable.
Fatoumata Diawara’s literal movie star presence (she has a film career as well) is immediately felt when she takes the stage. Her band was fused more with a Western tradition complete with keyboards playing a drum track and background vocals, bass, lead guitar, and a drum kit.
Diawara’s skills effortlessly took the lead on her small ruby colored electrical guitar she cradled for the first couple of songs. With a regal posture, she stared into the audience and picked notes tuned to her native Malian roots. While her roots are in Africa, her influences range from French troubadours to Afro-Cuban syncopations, and evolving into American jazz.
Like Seymali, Diawara had a message, and because of her language abilities, was able to craft that delivery for maximum impact. She explained how she wanted to “re-introduce Africa to the rest of the world to show the positive parts, where we get our smiles, the strength of our spiritual things.” And then she grabed her African fly whisk, a traditional part of African and Asian regalia meant to summon authority, and her voice transcended the instrumentation with its silky gravely rumble on the low end crescendoing into a smoothly paved hydroplaning high end that transformed the audience and finally got them comfortably out of their seats.
She is a solid performer and knows how to work a crowd. There is a performative element to the movements that accent the voice and vice versa while she seems to tap notes on the air. When she has our attention she delivers another message: lack of school access for Mali children “As a woman it is my responsibility to talk for those children. Children just need peace. Not material things. We (the audience) are not different; we are diverse. We are the planet of red blood and one heart beat.”
Generally this was the message through all three performances and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. These performers know abject poverty and repression, and yet they choose, above all, to transcend the weight of those experiences while acknowledging the need for change.
By the end of her performance, she was thanking the diaspora: Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, and others and transitioned in to a raucous empowering version of Simone’s arrangement of “Sinnerman.”
People were at the stage dancing and reveling in the energy while I hope the original intent of the message of that song was not lost. As a repeat to SMF, many knew exactly what to expect and Diawara did not disappoint. I would have liked to see the same attention shown to the shamanism of Seymali who I found much more compelling and mysterious and heavy in spiritual lift.
Don’t unplug my body
My two days of African roots culminated in what would be the broadest fusion of styles. Dayme Arocena and her three piece accompanying band were all Cuban virtuosos under 30-years-old.
The music, however, was weighted with more timeless storytelling in Creole, Spanish, and even some English. From the first notes, her keyboardist had one hand on the piano and another on the synths doing a lead to the rhythm section of a six-string bass and jazz drummer.
I have to say that the Charles H. Morris Center is acoustically superior to all other venues. It is like being on the inside of a speaker, even though an audience member remarked that her vocals were too powerful. She brushed it off by thanking the sound man for making everyone sound so perfect.
Arocena also evoked spirituality, in this case, the spirituality of Santoria which caught some off guard because of its an oversimplification of a type of black magic. Contrary to that perception, she wanted to connect our spirituality with hers. And her spirituality, no doubt, was rooted in music and dance more so than any doctrine.
The band seamlessly brought us on a multifaceted journey through Cuba, though they may not have known it since likely most of them had not traveled there. But I have. And I am so thankful for that context.
She sang of the “ Guajiros” (a derivation of English “war heroes”) who lived in the countryside and fought during the Spanish American War. She sang of the Spanish influences of Havana and the lesser known staunch African influences of Santiago. Like the other roots performers had done, we were lulled through narratives mediated by music and movement, not any sort of semantic meaning. We could feel it in our bodies and in our red blood we all share.
Arocena’s voice is mature beyond measure. It can be a hollow baritone akin to Odetta, to a smoky jazz infused Anita Baker, to a more contemporary Alicia Keys, but all Cuban equivalencies of course.
Her fundamental influences are folkloric, but it is apparent that as she matured, so did her subject matter. She embraces sexuality in all its manifestations and welcomed the audience to move their hips and try to cha-cha-cha. Actually, she didn’t invite. She stopped the music on more than one occasion and instructed.
This all culminated with some real instruction in which the audience failed the pre-test. Arocena sang “Don’t Unplug My Body.” At one point while moving her hips closer and closer to the ground she invited the audience to plead with her: “Baby,” “kiss me,” “touch me,” “squeeze me,” and the audience sort of failed, pretty miserably. She put her hand on her hip and shook her head in dissatisfaction. “Have you been to Cuba?” And then erupted into one last orgasmic dance of notes amid a pretty straightforward standard jazz progression and roots music came full circle, back to America.
It was the perfect tune to end my two day African roots exploration. A sexually playful song reminding us where we all come from and that we all need to be a little lighter while also acknowledging the incredibly inequity people are faced with everyday that prevents and misinterprets that very expression. Don’t unplug my body.