As Trio da Kali stalked onto stage dressed in traditional dress, I was left feeling as if I should have made a little more effort and hoping that they sounded half as sharp live as Mamadou Kouyaté’s cheekbones looked. Never a disappointment, they proved to have both style and substance.
The evening began with Hawa Diabaté singing a capella and I was transfixed by both the gravity and the soulfulness of her voice. The clarity of her voice was stunning as she showed the range of her ability, equally as comfortable on upbeat and sombre songs. However, this was not a one-woman show. As Lassana Diabaté on balafon and Kouyaté on the bass it became clear that they were not merely there to accompany her, but were stars in their own right. Their playful batting of solos back and forth across the stage, attempting to best one another, was a whimsical interlude. Kouyaté eventually accepted defeat to Diabaté’s spirited musicianship that subverted the balafon’s traditional roots as background percussion and let it shine on its own. Though slightly less successful, Hawa Diabaté’s attempt to get the audience to get out of their seats and dance. The fault was not in the conveying of the message in hesitantly offered English but sadly the very ‘English’ reserve of the audience, with only a few of us grooving at the sides. Despite this reserve it was pretty clear that the room was swept away with the evening, judging by the snatches of discussions I eavesdropped at the interval.
Despite only being together a relatively short time there was a clear generosity with the audience that reverberated through the evening- especially at its close. Through an eager audience member who offered to translate the group communicated the significance of their roots in the griot tradition, who traditionally are the keeper of songs and stories in West Africa. Before they sang a Malian song of thanksgiving, they taught the audience a couple of lines which we dutifully repeated throughout. Despite our talents being no match for theirs and having no understanding of the lyrics, the experience was one of the most profound I’ve had at a gig.
Unfortunately, it was over far too soon, and I was ejected from the Howard Assembly Room with only the glow of my memories to keep me warm on the wintry walk home.