Transforming the Smithsonian's staid Baird Auditorium into a dance hall isn't easy. Yet Congolese singer Sam Mangwana managed to do just that Sunday night with the help of a terrific Afro-pop band and an audience eager to succumb to the polyrhythmic beat.
Before the aisles filled with dancers, though, Mangwana spent part of the Smithsonian Associates concert outlining the political and cross-cultural significance of his "Congolese rumba music." He spoke in English of oppression and imperialism in Central Africa while acknowledging a broad variety of African and Western musical influences, including rhythms from Cuba and Brazil. After prefacing his performances with personal anecdotes--some enlightening, others amusing--he sang in an appealing tenor capable of expressing both deep-seated emotion and romantic whimsy. No matter what the tune or the language--Mangwana is fluent in Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, Portuguese, French and other tongues--the music produced waves of rhythmic motion as well as a lovely weave of guitar and accordion melodies.
Following a delightful solo interlude featuring the renowned soukous musician Papa Noel, whose shimmering guitar patterns occasionally suggested a sunny melding of African, Hawaiian and Nashville styles, Mangwana pushed his ensemble--and the audience--into high gear. Beginning with Noel's "Ghetto," a series of rhythmically infectious tunes ensued, punctuated by a crackling snare drum and laced with Joao Mota's sparkling guitar lines. Small wonder the crowd spent most of the second half of the concert on its feet, under the spell of this highly contagious music.