“I don’t know, this seems like a strange moment in time,” Steve Pierce told the crowd, one night after the election, at the Sanctuary for Independent Media where he is executive director. “Must be the rain,” Pierce added. “This’ll be a therapeutic session, I think, for all of us.”
Judging from photos of past speakers on the back wall of the converted church in North Central Troy—Ralph Nader, Juan González of the New York Daily News and Democracy Now!, peace activist Brian Willson—and from the manifestly beatnik auras of the few dozen attendees, Pierce was preaching, albeit allusively, to the choir. But soon enough he bridged to nonprofit theater-speak about upcoming events, and yielded the floor to something completely different—Trio Da Kali, a southern Malinese supergroup.
Vocalist Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté, clad in a powder-blue gown and clutching a gourd rattle, started the show a capella. Her voice immediately threatened the structural integrity of all area buildings.
“I’m not even sure why we have the PA system here,” Pierce joked in his introduction.
When joined by the other members of the group—Lassan Diabaté, who plays the 22-key balafon, or xylophone, and Mamadou Kouyaté, who plays an electric bass ngoni—she reveled in the mesmeric vamp of “Dissa,” as the performers, though more or less stationary, met eyes and smiled when dynamics escalated, or when someone tossed off something uncanny.
Lassan Diabaté’s balafon parts are unrelentingly busy—and yet, perhaps due to the absence of drums, they work. Braced by Kouyaté’s sparse, low-end syncopations, the xylophonist deploys patterned descents and frenetic ornamentations to complicate the underlying harmonic austerity. His maximalism does not preclude tact. On the second song, a lullaby-like waltz, with Kouyaté joining the lead vocalist in harmony, Diabaté mimicked a muted music box, keeping time with wayward quarter notes. Toward the tune’s end—when, perhaps, he could not bear to stay quiet any longer—his playing broke into a stunning gallop, his mallets rising above his sightline, a visible (and aural) reminder to the audience that the balafon is a percussive instrument.
He is a virtuoso, reminiscent of Glenn Gould, the foremost purveyor of Bach in the ’60s, but with better posture and just two sticks, rather than ten fingers, to work with. (Diabaté also shares the late Canadian pianist’s habit of making extra-musical vocalizations when the music gets good, though by no means to the same distracting extent.) The strictures of having just two prongs to work with reminded me of a time I browsed refurbished manual typewriters in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. Impelled by delusions of what it meant to be a writer, I watched as the salesman muscularly demoed a series of Olivettis with two, meaty fingers. I bought one; used it once; found it unbearable; and gave it away to the next luftmensch. Anyway, Diabaté is very good at playing the xylophone.
Toward the 90-minute show’s finale, some attendees danced in the aisles. I did not have the heart to ask them, at the concert’s end, if it had helped them forget the election’s outcome (in case it actually had). Alcohol probably helped, too; there was a bar, and a couple seated behind me, dressed in “very Sanctuary” attire, as a companion put it, was inebriated. Whatever gets you through. Though I found little solace that evening in the uniformly gorgeous work of Trio Da Kali, it was heartening to know that, however many important agencies are dismantled in the coming years, there will always be people who pursue excellence at a craft and use their work’s fruits to succor the public. Demand for these folk remedies may only, God help us, increase.