Two of the brightest stars in modern west African music will light up the Ashkenaz Dance Club on San Pablo Avenue this week. On Thursday, it’s Kanda Bongo Man and on Saturday is Rokia Traore.
Kanda Bongo Man, known as “the voice of soukous [a blend of African and Caribbean rhythms],” brings his six-piece band and his famous dance, the hyperkinetic Kwassa Kwassa, to the dance floor.
Kanda Bongo Man has been a professional musician since dropping out of school as a teenager and has more than a dozen records to his name, including his latest “Balobi.”
He says he’s been around long enough to see his native land bear three different names – Belgian Congo, Zaire and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kanda Bongo Man is of the Bandundu people and sings in Lingala. He left his town of Inongo for the capital of Kinshasha as a teen to join the Orchestre Bella Mambo.
Kanda’s move to France in 1979 cemented his reputation. He soon found the blend of world beats on the boulevards that today mark his distinctive sound– singing that is driven by as many as three electric guitars. He worked with two of soukous’ greatest guitarists, Rigo Star and Diblo Dibala, leading to his first hit album “Lyole” in 1981. His stint on the WOMAD tour in 1983 opened up his style to the rest of the world, and Kwassa Kwassa hit the airwaves in 1988.
While Kanda Bongo Man has been a force in world music for decades, Malian singer Rokia Traore, 28, has recently come to the forefront, recording her first album in 1998 and launching her first American tour in 2000. Like Kanda Bongo Man, a cosmopolitan background helped shape her music.
The daughter of a jazz-loving diplomat, Rokia grew up around the world, taking in the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in places like Belgium and Saudi Arabia.
The polyglot influence shows in her arrangements. Though her seven-piece band plays Malian traditional instruments, with the exception of the occasional electric guitar, the arrangements by Traore bespeak an educated ear and potpourri of musical ideas.
“Her orchestrations and vocal arrangements are totally innovative,” says tour manager and promoter Deborah Cohen.
While influenced by her world travels, Traore is rooted in her native musical tradition as well, having studied under the wing of Malian guitar giant Ali Farka Toure. Cohen credits the French Cultural Centre in Bakoma, the Malian capital, for promoting the nation’s music and introducing these two. Toure was the artistic director of her first recording and remains a good friend.
Traore sings in Bamanan, and her backing band incorporates the sounds of n’goni (a banjo-like lute), balaba (balafon/marimba), the calabash (gourd) and talking drums. Her backup singers are Joelle Kongue Esso and Corine Thuy-Thy.
Cohen, who spent five weeks in Mali, discussed the spirit of musical kinship that exists. “Music is such an integral part of life there.
Most musicians have home studios. Bands are in and out of studio in two or three days. It’s almost like a family link. It’s very convivial and they’re constantly crossing paths,” she said.
What might the uninitiated expect at a Rokia Traore show?
“She starts off basically a cappella, very lyrical and moving, similar to the mood on the CDs,” said Cohen. “The music builds, and you become very aware of complexity of arrangements. The power of her voice is remarkable, compared to what you hear on record. It’s a rambunctious romp.”
Traore’s concert will also be sparked by Kasumai Bare, a West African band fronted by KALW radio man Henri-Pierre Koubaka, featuring ancient and contemporary Mandingo and Kongo rhythms and an international lineup including percussionist Babou Sagna from Senegal, choreographer Marietou Camara and guitarist/balafonist Mohamed Kouyate from Guinea and guitarist Ze Manel from Guinea Bissau.