At the Rio Theatre on Saturday, December 1
Midway through Alpha Yaya Diallo’s show West African Summit, a well-dressed guy from the audience sidled onto the stage and, dancing slowly round the artists, started shedding bank notes. Plucking crisp bills from his vest one by one and waving them briefly, he circled guitarist Diallo and kora player Prince Diabaté and placed the money at their feet. They beamed, the benefactor danced his way back, and the needle on the energy meter crept up a couple of notches as the six-piece band’s West African groove got deeper and a tad faster.
On a rain-sodden weekend Diallo and his musicians provided a feast of colour, dressed in robes with dazzling patterns and contrasts, and dancers Mabinty Sylla and N’nato Camara went through a couple of costume changes. The women, who appeared often, quickly fired up the crowd, and the pit area and aisles filled.
Diallo’s music was familiar: the songs were from his most recent album, Immé, and other recordings he’s made since moving here from Guinea 21 years ago. The sound was more traditional than on Immé, however, with the addition of Diabaté’s kora. He and Diallo, who played an acoustic-electric guitar throughout, worked closely together. Diallo’s delicate and flowing guitar style draws inspiration from the kora, a kind of traditional harp that was the court instrument of the medieval Mali Empire. He’s at his best when playing arpeggio-like descending runs on the guitar, so Diabaté is a natural partner with his 21-stringed instrument, which sported a resonator-gourd the colour and shape of a massive strawberry.
There were no long solos, though plenty of short ones. Naby Camara’s balafon (traditional marimba) was the pivot between the lead instruments and the rhythmic anchor of drums, bass, and djembe percussion. However, the mainly midtempo music had a sameness that could have become soporific without the extraordinary display and agility of the on-stage dancers. N’nato Camara in particular possessed the elasticity of a cat. She flung her head and braided hair back and forth at a speed that would give anyone else severe whiplash. Her dancing had wildness and abandon, and later in the show she briefly performed brief acrobatics, hand-springing across the stage.
Diallo finished in style with “Yeke Yeke” from his album Aduna (The World), an uptempo jam, and invited a large part of the crowd onto the stage to help out. The band came back for one more long groove, which sparked the appearance of another bill-waving benefactor, this time female. The pulse of the music quickened accordingly. The cultural message from West Africa was clear: if you like the music, flash the musicians some cash while they’re playing, and see and hear the response. It’s a tradition in many lands that a few of Vancouver’s performing artists would no doubt like to see take root here.