B Bamba Dembele, the director of the Song and Dance Ensemble of West Africa, brought his troupe of musicians (a few of whom doubled as dancers) to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts for a concert showcasing the traditional music of Mali.
Traditional, in this instance, means a sizable battery of percussion masters, a trio of string players, a flutist and a quartet of singers. The drum choir didn't really need any amplification but the singers had their own individual microphones while the two balaphon (xylophone) players and the rest of the company benefited from some discreet amplification.
Dembele possesses an impressive resume that includes stints with important West African ensembles like the Super Rail Band and Zani Diabate's Super Djata Band, in addition to work with the superb, internationally renowned Malian guitarists Tjelimady Tounkara and Boubacar Traore.
The authority granted to him by his past associations allowed Dembele to lead the ensemble from the back row where he was seated with the rest of the drummers in much the same way that some European classical ensembles are led by the keyboard player.
Nearly everybody had a turn in the spotlight. The two solo singers, Kadidia Diabate and Loutan Kouyate, took turns heading out front to grab the microphone, and the pair of backup singers came to the fore and danced up a storm. Mamoudou Diakete, one of the drummers, was the only designated male dancer and, when he busted a few moves, looked as if he were conducting a clinic in the art of barely controlled spasms.
Bourama Diabate, the ngoni player (akin to a guitarist) and cora (harp) stylist Modibo Diawara deserve special mention for showcasing the kind of moves generally associated with arena rock gods, but the balaphon duo of Mory Kouyate and Lanse Diabate carried most of the melody lines during the concert and were arguably the most consistently impressive musicians not flailing away at a drum.
All in all, Thursday night's program was a delight for the ears and a colorful feast for the eyes with musicians and dancers all combining to create a near constant flow of rhythm and melody and charging up their performances with that magically elusive spark of energy which turns a concert into a special event.
WHO: The Song and Dance Ensemble of West Africa
WHEN: Thursday night
WHERE: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst