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Gotta Dance, Apparently, with Acoustic Africa

March 11, 2011

Habib Koité of Acoustic Africa

The couple, probably in their mid-50s, sat in the row in front of us and slightly to the left at the Wisconsin Union Theater Thursday night. We all were watching Acoustic Africa, the musical tour featuring singer-songwriters Habib Koite, Oliver Mtukudzi and Afel Bocoum. Or at least we were trying.

The male half of the couple unexpectedly arose and left, leaving his female partner to ask, “Where are you going?” After a short absence, he returned and words ensued, including the phrase “Don’t leave!” Minutes later, they both picked up their coats and left.

The musicians on stage were playing their hearts out, or so it seemed to those of us sitting in audience. However, few of us could see the stage for all the “dancers” that crowded to the front, a group that included people of all ages, from UW students to obvious AARP members. They had been provoked to dance by the evening’s hosts from WORT, and that may or may not have been a good thing.

And that, alas, is the perennial problem when Acoustic Africa – or any one of a number of rhythmically compelling acts – performs at WUT, and may have driven away the couple who themselves had earlier been part of the stage-front throng. Some of us just want to enjoy the musicians’ artistry from the comfort of our seats, while others of us need to feel the beat with our feet. And that dichotomy creates no small share of visibility problems.

To its credit, WUT staff understands the dilemma and had posted signs asking dancers to restrict their movements to the aisles and not stand and dance in their seats. That’s a nice attempt, but doesn’t do much for the first 10 rows of the main floor – generally the most expensive seats – whose occupants’ views are then obscured by the wall of bodies clogging the front of the stage. It’s either join the writhing crowd, or pretend you’re listening to a very expensive radio program.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this dilemma, which is too bad because the musicians presented a very fine, musically compelling program. This was Boucoum’s first visit to Madison, and he represented the more traditional side of Malian music along with fellow countryman and Madison favorite Koite, who played with a distinctly more popular approach without losing the traditional flavors.

Mtukudzi, who hails from Zimbabwe, is the most internationally known of the trio, that worked with four backup musicians in varying combinations performing on guitar, drums, electric base, percussion and a njarka, a traditional one-string fiddle that can be either plucked or bowed.

The music was surprisingly sedate, at least during the first half, and fairly complex. Koite tunes his electric guitar on a pentatonic scale so that its sounds are closer to those of African instruments, giving it the power of contemporary music seasoned with the flavors of traditional melodies. The same may be said of the ensemble as a whole, which provided more than two hours of a very pleasing performance.

“In Africa, music is like food,” Mtukudzi said between songs. “If you don’t have a message, you can’t sing a song.”

I am not exactly sure what the non sequitur meant, but from looks of things the audience – dancing or seated – appeared well-nourished and satisfied by the evening’s performance.

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