African Rhythms and American Guitars

Fairbanks Concert Association’s penultimate 2014-2015 concert featured Canadian/African supergroup African Guitar Summit. They are a a Canadian group with very diverse African roots. Their show is very hard to describe, a synthesis of some elements of American guitar, traditional African instruments, rhythms and melodies and lyrics, and brilliant instrument work. But that’s a hopelessly inadequate description of African Guitar Summit.

African Guitar Summit, Fort St. Joh, B.C., photographer unknown

African Guitar Summit, Fort St. Joh, B.C., photographer unknown

Donné Roberts and Madagascar Slim come from Madagascar, off Africa’s southeastern coast. Alpha Yaya Diallo and African xylophone player Naby Camara come form Guinea, on Africa’s west coast. Percussionist Kofi Ackah is from the Ghana, further up Africa’s west coast. In geography and music traditions, they are about as far apart as Jamaica and Washington state, as far apart as Jamaican Reggae and Seattle Grunge rock. And yet they make it work.

The three guitars are anchored by the percussion work of Ackah and Camara. Ackah plays wonderful poly-rhythms on a more-or-less standard drum kit; Camra plays traditional African drum and the balafon, a kind of wooden xylophone that produces a buzzy music tone. The three guitarists were astonishingly good. They passed an electric bass around, but generally played guitar. Madagascar Slim – if your real name was Randriaman Radofa Besata Jean Longin you’d call yourself Slim, too, even if you aren’t very slim – plays in a Jimi Hendrix-style, complete with wah-wah pedal, heavy distortion, making the guitar cry and sing. Diallo, by contrast, reminded WC of Leo Kottke, incredible, fast runs, liquid notes at virtuoso speeds. Roberts is somewhere in between, less flash and more electric than Diallo, but more wedded to the melody than Slim. But all of them preserve and develop the African melodies and rhythms of their native countries. They have a whole shelf of Juno Awards – the Canadian Grammy – among them, and its shows. Despite the different approaches, they play as a cohesive group, mixing Guinean, Ghanan and Madagascar songs. It was both very impressive musicianship and great fun.

The guys themselves are comfortable on stage, interact with the audience well and while the songs were mostly in their native tongues, their English is very good. Their improvisational work drew frequent applause from the enthusiastic crowd.

WC emerged with a very good CD, African Guitar Summit II, a Juno-nominated album from 2007. World music doesn’t get much more eclectic than this.

Great fun, a great show and wonderful music.