The headliners were great — Paul Thorn and the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the double bill featuring Etienne Charles and Ranky Tanky — but the smaller programs offered by the Savannah Music Festival during the daytime provided unexpected thrills and a surprising dose of joy.
On Friday, the gorgeous music of Africa took center stage. South African guitarist Derek Gripper started a remarkable set with solo Bach. His classical chops are well developed, but he managed to give Bach his own expressive spin. Then he played a couple of stunning traditional tunes — the best kind of cultural appropriation! — before being joined on stage by electric guitarist John Bashengezi from the Congo and multi-instrumentalist Kinobe from Uganda.
Together, they played more folk songs, with Kinobe switching between mbira (thumb piano), endongo (bowl lyre) and kora (21-string harp that sits on one’s lap), Bashengezi tastefully plucking his guitar and Gripper alternating between ornamental accompaniment and bursts of bright fun.
It was elegant and satisfying to hear.
Trio Da Kali then took over with traditional music of the Mande culture, centered in southern Mali. Lassana Diabate played a double balafon, or wooden xylophone, with the treble notes by the left hand and bass notes by the right — the reverse of a Western instrument of its kind.
Mamadou Kouyate expertly played the bass ngoni, a guitar-like instrument with a wooden or calabash body covered with cured animal skin. Singer Hawa “Kasse Mady” Diabate provided the mesmerizing, powerful vocals, along with a beat she produced with a shekere.
Music from Mali relies on repeated patterns (what we might call a groove), limited harmonic range (just two or three chords), and lots of dynamic improvisation. It was impossible to look away. Diabate’s mastery of the balafon provoked regular bursts of applause. And one could not tire of Kasse Mady’s golden, elastic voice, which could soar high and swoop low, delivering the stories of her country in a sequence of stunning phrases.
Trio Da Kali performed again on Saturday afternoon in a longer, equally glorious set. They were joined briefly by Kinobe, a fan of Mali music, who added kora to the instrumental configuration.
Audiences unfamiliar with this style of music surely will find it accessible and seductive. And to hear these songs performed by people who come from well-respected musical families, players who are carrying on an important tradition, adds an extra thrill to the experience.
The Savannah Music Festival continues through April 14. It features a variety of styles, from classical to jazz, roots/Americana to Broadway pop. Go to savannahmusicfestival.org for more information, a full schedule and tickets.