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Review: African Interplay
Ballake Sissoko and Vicent Segal at the Lucas Theatre

    Demonstrating the spirit of unique collaboration that’s always been at the heart of the Savannah Music Festival, the March 25 show by Ballake Sissoko (on the kora, a tall African harp) and Vincent Segal (cello) crossed all sorts of musical boundaries. At times flowing and pastoral, at others adventurous and rhythmic to the point of palpitation-inciting, the music incorporated pieces of Indian ragas, Celtic melody lines and the unmistakable colors of the Far East.

The core, of course, was the Malinese folk music of Sissoko’s homeland, which Segal augmented brilliantly with pizzicato-plucked basslines and off-meter countermelodies.

Visually, the pair couldn’t have been more incongruous – Sissoko in a white dashiki, sitting behind his massive, 21-string ancient instrument, and Segal in a black business suit with his cello, alternately bowed, plucked and strummed like a guitar. Each was illuminated by a lone spotlight.

Sissoko, who doesn’t speak English, left the brief introductions to Segal. The cellist’s heavy French accent made most of what he said difficult to understand, although he did get one little joke in. Both musicians have sons who play collegiate football in Paris, he explained, and so they wrote a song in support of the program. “Still,” Segal lamented, “They don’t come and see us.”

The 1,200-seat Lucas Theatre was slightly less than half full for the concert, which was billed as African Interplay.

From the West African nation of Benin, the dazzling guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke took up the second half of the program, accompanied by a six-piece ensemble conducted by Robert Sadin, who’s famous for his genre-splitting arrangements for Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Kathleen Battle and others.

Sadin sat on a stool in front of the musicians and conducted.

Although the playing was flawless, the best moments came when the oboe, violin, cello and saxophone were silent, letting Loueke and percussionist Cyro Baptista play their charming jazz-meets-African music simply, from the heart. Baptista had a fully-stocked cabinet of percussion instruments, from things that clicked and rattled to things that sounded like waves, to bird whistles and primitive bass-harps.

Loueke’s original music has an enchating, Afro-Caribbean lilt, his deep voice scat-singing over the melodic lines of his guitar.

Often the full ensemble seemed as if it were over-arranged, with the string section (which included Vincent Segal) sawing away, the others blowing in counterpoint, when there really wasn’t any point to it. To these ears, much of the music simply sounded tacked together, as if forcing a square peg into a round hole.

It was easier to admire the effort than to enjoy what was being produced.

The guy in the chair next to me fell asleep.

Perhaps there’s such a thing as too much collaboration.