It has been years (probably around 20) since the last time I went to a show at Zellarbach Hall. In fact, it has been so long ago that I don’t remember who I saw there last. It might have been Diamanda Galas, or possibly Kodo, or maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I remember that Motorhead even played there once, although I ended up seeing a show at Gilman Street that night instead, possibly MDC.
I’ve been a casual fan of Mahmoud Ahmed’s music since I stumbled across his songs on an Ethiopiques compilation, “Ethiopian Blues & Ballads”. Since then, I’ve picked up a couple of his releases, but my collection is by no means complete, especially when one considers how long he has been performing and recording. I was unfamiliar with opening act, Trio Da Kali.
This ended up being a family outing, since I managed to convince both my wife and daughter to come along. We also met up with my brother afterward.
The only photo I took the whole evening was of the crappy, phone variety. I didn’t even bother bringing a camera because I knew that photography was frowned upon at Zellarbach. That didn’t stop people from trying, of course, and it sure gave the ushers a workout as they swooped in and made people put their phones and other recording devices away. It was like putting out spot fires though, and they always reignited.
Trio Da Kali proved to be delightful, playing acoustic music with interesting instruments and featuring an phenomenal vocalist in the person of singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate. Lassana Diabate was excellent on lead balafon (imagine a xylophone like instrument with gourd resonators). I say “lead” balafon because he seemed to be constantly, exuberantly soloing, filling the hall with sweeping cascades of mellifluous notes. The trio was rounded out by bass ngoni player, Mamadou Kouyate.
The program notes reveal that “Da Kali” means to swear an oath or pledge. In this case, it relates to griot musicians and their pledge to “maintain their art”. To my ears, it sounded like they’re doing a fine job of it. I couldn’t understand the lyrics, of course, but they brought on a translator who explained some of the songs, and even went so far as to sing and dance a bit.
There was an aura of happiness to their set, and I popped into the lobby between bands to pick up the one CD they had on offer. I’d definitely go see them again, and there is something about their performance that doesn’t readily translate to the recorded versions.
Check out Trio Da Kali on Facebook here.
Mahmoud Ahmed, who is now in his mid-seventies, was accompanied by a band consisting of more traditional western instrumentation: guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and a brass section.
The set started with Ere Mela Mela, which is the title track from his 1975 album, and proved to be the only song of the evening that I instantly recognized. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but there are similarities between his style and that of the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Both of their voices have a slightly husky, quavering quality that makes them sound so exotic to Western ears.
The blown-out quality of the one photo I took visually represents the waves of light emanating from the musicians. Ahmed seems to be glowing with unbearably pure light, and indeed, after 40 years of bringing light into listeners lives, he may very well be.
What followed was a great set of similar songs, which at times inspired the audience to burst into the aisles and dance. Nobody threw money onto the stage like the audience did at the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan show I saw in the same venue (which is something I’d never witnessed before or since), but there was definitely a lot of enthusiasm among those of us who got to witness this rare event.
The recent death of Leonard Cohen, who was only about 7 years older than Mahmoud Ahmed at the time of his passing, leaves me wondering if this will be the only time I ever get to see Mahmoud Ahmed perform. After all, he rarely tours these days.
Check out this link for currently available Buda Records Ethiopiques discs.