November 19, 2004

Japan, meet Senegal.

Yesterday I went to a free Jazz concert, organized by the Japanese Embassy, in Dakar.

Or, as my friend puts it: "We were a group of Americans, Canucks, Swedes, Brits and French; watching Japanese Jazz players, in Senegal". Pretty sweet.

4 stuffy older Japanese men came on the scene and played a pretty believable set of Jazz songs, with the egotistical drummer and attention-craving Sax player to make it more authentic.

I liked the piano man the best. He was sitting prim and proper on his little bench. But when it came time for the piano solo, this guy really knew how to rock: his hands fluttered as quickly as bumble bees' wings and his mouth huffed and puffed like that of an old man chewing food with what little dentition is left. When he would get very excited, he would take his coat off and fling it on the floor and end his act with a curt little bow. When others were playing, his face would twitch and convulse.

It's hard to be a Bass man. First of all, it's difficult not to look ridiculous holding what looks like a grossly overblown violin. But the guy was cool and chilled, like you would expect any bass player in a jazz band to be like. He was clearly enjoying the music in a muted way, awkward in his holding position of the instrument, he would jut his chin in and out in syncopated rhythm and do a little shoulder and hip shimmy. The coordination of his hand movements was enthralling, with the hand on the top picking the strings, and the hand on the bottom composing noticeably more difficult combinations.

The Sax person seemed to be very needy of attention. He was good but hit those whinny notes too often for my taste (you know, the ones that sound like a hysterical lady or a teenage boy with a breaking voice). He'd get really close to the mic, put the opened portion of his sax against it and belt it out, often to the detriment of his band mates and our sensitive ears. Of course, holding a sax is difficult but there is a range of motions that are ultimately cooler than that of the Bass man. You can sway back and forth and curve your spin inwards for example, you can move your sax up and down with a little shake o'the head, and you can generally walk around with it in a cool strut and a little weird dance.

The Drum man was good and he knew it. While the other players generally took their solos in stride and played a variation of the music piece, the drummer, when left to his own devices, would sway off the piece completely and show us his crazy moves. While his moves were impressive, they broke the rhythm of the song, and the team work that one so relishes in jazz, was disregarded completely. My friends called him "the ego-maniacal drummer".

An impressive part of the show was when the drummer showcased his skills on the Balafon: he partnered with a Senegalese player using a set of hollow bowls, ordered from smallest to largest, topped with a wooden xylophone. The effect was terrific, hearing an African beat and a Japanese variation on it, and reaffirmed the coolness of discovering other cultures.

Who would have thought the Japan would meet Senegal in such a harmonious way?

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