Saturday night's "Music from Africa" concert at the Baird Auditorium began with two griots from Mali performing traditional music on the hunter's harp lute and the balafon (a sort of xylophone made of pentatonically tuned wood blocks). It ended in a wild jam session, with seven musicians from three different traditions improvising jazz together after they had separately given samples of music from Mali, Zambia and Zaire. Then, in the final encore, two members of the audience joined the musicians on stage and the music escalated out of sight.
All the musicians were good; two were extraordinary: griot Keletigui Diabate of Mali, who brought both the balafon and the audience to a franzy, and Lema-A-Nsi of Zaire, who was using a borrowed guitar but played it as though he had been born with an amplified Gibson in his hands.
None of the musical styles was really unfamiliar. Lionel Hampton made American ears ready for the balafon a long time ago; the call-and-response patterns of Mali folk songs are echoed in American spirituals, and much of the music from all three areas has flourished (in its pure form or in adaptations) in the Caribbean and Brazil. The roots of American music, in many forms, were evident in the work of these African musicians, and in Lema's case American feedback to African music could also be heard.
It all came together in the final encore, when a woman from the audience, identified as Nataska Hassan Yussef added to the general jamming a hair-raising vocal that blended in seamlessly. For a few minutes, it sounded almost as though Miriam Makeba had decided to join the troupe.