Toumani and Sidiki Diabate. Father and son. Master kora players from Mali seated on a Victorian Arts Centre throne. Neat rows of white, pink and red lights artfully arranged on black risers and curtains. Seats positioned, kora stands and microphones at the ready.
Obedient audience arranges itself in allocated seating.
Sidiki begins alone. His mastery and mojo washes over the crowd. We clap politely, enthusiastically even..
Toumani is assisted to the stage and we clap some more. They begin to play then stop. We clap. Oh no… ahhh … um … they were only tuning. We blush, titter, we wait.
They begin, again. Gloriously delicate harmonies and profoundly complex polyrhythm in interplay, the musicians bodies moving in concert with their bulbous instruments. We, the witnesses are invited to move by the groove. But we are absent. We look and listen. We clap, when there is silence.
But something is wrong. Someone in the back of the auditorium is CLAPPING ALONG to the music. No, not just clapping, but clapping OUT OF TIME. We in the front rows look around and smile at one another knowingly. How inappropriate, how coarse, how vulgar. Keep it nice people, this is the ARTS centre. We don’t come here to participate, we come here to imbibe.
Clapping person = an anomaly responding to intrinsic human desire. The rest of us are mute observers. We are having a cultural experience.
Every ounce of my being wants to accept the music’s invitation to hit the aisle and dance. With no drum in sight this music still drags at my core. But I fail to act and lose a part of myself in the process.
African music is about participation. About the relationship between the body and the groove, the player and the played. We here in the West sometimes miss the opportunity to connect and listening becomes an intellectual exercise. Feeling becomes a pleasant side effect.
The marriage of culture offers boundless opportunities for expansion. Can our major venues find a place for us to meet somewhere more firmly in the middle?