While winds rested and gave way to a summer mood, a warmer than usual evening was lifted higher by soulful sounds that traveled from Africa and graced Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, CA.
On an epic Friday evening (Nov. 4th), Berkeley denizens as well as others from across the Bay Area were greeted with rapturous music from Mali and Ethiopia. Trio Da Kali and Mahmoud Ahmed, broadly classified within the bounds of “Afropop”, were the dazzling features at Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley, known for “presenting performances of the highest artistic quality”.
A full band accompanied Ethiopian legend, Mahmoud Ahmed. Best known for his stunning rhythmic blend of jazz and rhythm and blues with Ethiopian soul music, the King of Love Songs set a blissful mood to love and nostalgia. And to no surprise, the regal looking sensation set his raspy rapturous vocals free in a custom way of riding over hypnotic beats.
During the nearly two hour long show, it took a moment for Mahmoud and the audience to reach a high-spirited mood known to Ethiopia’s musical tradition. Zellerbach theatre’s custom was awkward for dancing or spirited exchange between performer and fans, customary to Mahmoud. The crowd got restless with each tune. Seemingly, neither the organizers nor the concert hall administrators were prepared for the lively outpour of love from the Ethiopian diaspora.
On several occasions, as fans got to their feet to dance, they were immediately met with a slap on the wrist. Contrary to what Ethiopians, generally speaking, are accustomed to, they were restricted from dancing to a familiar call. And with each seated twist, shake and clapping hand, it was obvious the energies were anxious. But as the melody to Mahmoud’s “Ashkaru” song emerged, the crowd was gripped — following one brave fan, an irresistible crowd was sent rushing down the aisle and all the way to the front to dance against strict house rules. After failed attempts to get the crowd back to their seats, the ushers and security people gave up.
Captured by the shaking sensation of the shoulder and neck dance known as “eskista” (meaning “dancing shoulders” in Ethiopia’s Amharic language) as well as rapid legs, shoulder and hand movement of the Gurage dance (known to the Gurage people of Ethiopia), the crowd shutout what appeared to be a rather odd theatre hall rule. In proximity to the legend, the crowd was ecstatic — and Mahmoud’s spirits were uplifted enough.
After 50-plus years in music, Mahmoud is still going strong. Impressively, the soul musician confirmed his rightful place as the “Red Sea’s most seductive soul singer”. The evening, filled with vocal offerings of overflowing passion evoking deep longings was Mahmoud’s — the legend continues.
Harmoniously, Trio Da Kali was as evocative and brilliant. Hailing from the Mandé culture of southern Mali, the group comes from a long tradition of distinguished jeliw (known as griots in French) that date back to 13th century in Mande Empire of Mali. A jeli is a supreme storyteller, lyricist, singer, musician, and oral historian with a key role in African society.
This hereditary style of music, performed by the golden voiced poet-musician Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté, and backed by the ngoni (West African string instrument) and balafon (wooden xylophone), was delivered with soul and depth from the heart and belly. Such fervent offerings of rich sounds of ancient and neglected repertoire, Trio Da Kali’s music seems more proper linked to traditional style of artistic composition rather than assigning it to the expression “Afropop”.
Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté, daughter of legendary Kasse Mady Diabaté, in keeping to oral epic traditions as jeliw do, set the stage in a musical rapture so absorbing. Stunningly, she sang stories to the longing heart with unparalleled depth rendered meaningfully.
Diabaté’s powerful and passionate, thick and weighty yet elastic voice lifted and carried souls away. Escorted by the distinctive sound of the balafon, heavenly was Diabaté as she soared and sung completely glorified. She confirmed why the voice is distinguished as the most treasured instrument in Mande culture.
Trio Da Kali “takes its name from one of the oldest and most iconic praise songs in the griot repertoire. “Da kali” means “to swear an oath”— in this case, it is the griots’ pledge to maintain their art”.
“We always like to sing about and pay homage to Seckou Keita. He lifted the griots. We are griots before an artist. Everyone can be an artist but, not anyone can be a griot”, Lassana Diabaté, one of Mali’s most accomplished players of the balafon told the crowd, throwing light on the significance of griots in African history. “We are playing instruments of the Mande culture that existed pre-colonialism so we can go back to the time that existed before colonialism”.
Photo (Mahmoud Ahmed) credit: Dagmawi Eyassu