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The difference is attitude

By Francisco J. DeLaTorre

What is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the MITCAN (MIT African Music Ensemble) performance last week? Fun.

I’ve been to every MITCAN performance since I came to MIT, and this has to have been the best so far. Why? It was fun. Fun for the audience, and fun for the performers. But all the performances so far have been great, what made this one so different? Perhaps it was the fact that there were more students involved in this production than ever before. Perhaps because this was the largest audience ever (there was even a threat from the Campus Police to close down the show because all the audience members sitting in the aisles constituted a fire hazard). Perhaps it was the guest performer, Alamako Balla Tounkara. Perhaps it was just that audience member sitting down the row from me, jumping up and down in her seat and clapping her hands. This was a fantastic show.

The scene was set with the opening instrumental ensemble; the entire MITCAN crew got up and played an explosively percussive, energetic number whose roots in south central Uganda yielded wonderful rhythms and instrumental transitions from one section to another, priming the audience for the evening ahead of them. After the opening number, Prof. James Makubuya acknowledged the audience’s energy, inviting us to participate in the musical experience by clapping, singing, and dancing in our seats.

The middle of the show took a decidedly slower turn when MITCAN gave the stage to the master kora player Alamako Balla Tounkara. His instrument, a cross between an African harp and a lyre, modernized by the plug-in that sent the sounds directly to the speaker (the electric kora?) exhibited a wispy, ethereal tone. The songs, which seemed to form the intermissions between his long monologues, were beautiful and emotional, hinging on melancholy; these haunting melodies were accompanied by his partner’s soft drumming and by the audience’s humming. He spoke whatever came to his mind, at one point stopping the music to do so. The most memorable moment, though, was when he told us how he was looked down upon for playing music from all over the world (not exclusively African), and then proceeded to play a short segment from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

The program then turned back to the more energetic and exciting performances by various members of the MITCAN ensemble. These performances drew their influences from many of Africa’s cultural traditions, outlined for us by Prof. Makubuya. Some numbers emulated musical duels, some -- the practice of playing an instrument at the end of a long day, and some drew their inspirations from various folk dances.

The program as a whole had a good balance between African dance and the lesser-explored instrumental performances. One of the most intriguing (and least appreciated) aspects of African music is the sound quality. Seeing variations of easily recognized instruments (ndongo resembles a lyre, adungu is a variant of the harp, and ndingidi is a kind of a violin), and acknowledging their vastly different sounds and musical possibilities, makes for a very interesting musical experience.

This is not to say that the dances and percussion segments were lacking in quality; quite the opposite. The harvest folk dance was exciting, the work dance trio was phenomenal, and Prof. Makubuya seemed to enjoy the final dance number so much that he kept it going longer than the audience (and some of the performers, apparently) expected, although the audience’s energetic clap-and-dance accompaniment only encouraged the performers to continue.

What a difference attitude makes. The audience clearly loved the performance, and this was fueled in part by the performers’ enthusiasm. Looking at the expressions on their faces, and hearing the not-so-subtle musical jokes (yes, I believe that was “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen being played on the adungu!) increased our appreciation of the evening tenfold because it brought the performance closer to home. No longer were we an audience listening to a rendition of traditional African music and dance: we were friends of the performers, participating in an informal gathering of people who love music.