Review: Les Ambassadeurs spread joy in debut UAE performance
It took exactly three tunes for the Les Ambassadeurs Abu Dhabi crowd to crack. The mixed group of curious listeners sat politely cross-legged, under the stars in an NYUAD courtyard, or standing attentively at the sides. Then two brave dancers self-consciously moved into the empty space in front of the stage. Inspired, another dragged two friends onto the floor.
That was all it took — within seconds the entire audience was on their feet, scores of bobbing bodies gyrating euphorically to the beat. Frankly, I’m surprised it took that long. The musicians on that stage have more than a little experience when it comes to making people boogie.
We’re talking about Les Ambassadeurs, the classic Afro-pop troupe whose origins date back to early 1970s Mali. One of the first African bands to find a global audience, the group spawned several musicians who went on to find notable individual success after the band’s early 1980s breakdown.
None more so than Salif Keita, the un-replicable vocal talent who became one of “world music’s” first superstars. It can only be nostalgia or deep-seated fraternity which persuaded Keita to embark on last year’s Les Ambassadeurs “supergroup” reunion, three decades after leaving the band.
Now aged 66, Keita’s vocal powers remain undiminished — breaking into the refrain of battle anthem Mandjou, his primal delivery acts as both a roaring declaration, and an invite to the party.
Behind Keita, in the ranks of this sharp-dressed 12-piece ensemble, stands Amadou Bagayoko, best known as one-half of world-conquering, mutually blind, Malian husband-and-wife act Amadou & Mariam. He carries no sense of ceremony — only the golden guitar gives his celebrity away.
Bagayoko played just three solos all night — each tastefully Tennessee-twanging, Telecaster noodles.
To his left, the younger guitarist Ousmane Kouyaté made longer, angrier, modal explorations on his fiery Gibson SG, at one point wandering into the crowd and baying theatrically, ever the showman. However nothing Kouyaté did came close to upstaging arranger/leader Cheick Tidiane Seck, who couldn’t disguise his boyish enthusiasm as he unleashed one screeching, lighting-speed organ solo after another.
If we’re talking first about the soloists, it’s because there’s plenty of free space to improvise in this music.
Les Ambassadeurs don’t perform songs, so much as grooves — basic harmonic sketches for the band to riff on ad infinitum.
Channelling traditional West African music with elements of funk, Latin and jazz, this in an approach based on repetition and texture. The sound is both simple but precise — the players are required to play loose, but detailed.
Atop this interwoven web of pounding rhythms, nodding bass, driving guitar twangs, keyboard vamps and horn stabs, comes Keita’s exaltations and exorcisms.
The primal griots’s chants are often taken up by keyboardist Idrissa Soumaoro back by the two female backing singers — and at times seemingly the whole courtyard.
Before the concert started, NYUAD Arts Centre executive arts director Bill Bragin told the crowd how the musicians had flown out from Paris three days earlier, in the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks which shook the French capital, and the globe.
He quoted the words of Leonard Bernstein, following the great American composer’s decision to continue with a planned concert in the hours after the assassination of the 35th US president, John F Kennedy.
“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime,” he read. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Indeed, it was a night for joy, triumph, and resilience.
• The NYUAD Arts Centre programme continues with Indian-American jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa & Gamak on Tuesday November 24. See www.nyuad-artscenter.org/en_US/events for more