Most business partners argue over money. “As people trained in ethnomusicology,” says Eli Cane, co-producer of a monthly African music night at Cornelia Street Café, “we argue over things like using the word traditional.” Cane and fellow producer Avrom Caplan obviously did time in the classroom, but they’ve also spent months studying drumming in Ghana. The name of their partnership, Where’s the 1? Productions, is a joke, though not exactly a side-splitter: “Western-trained musicians look for the downbeat, the ‘one,’ ” Cane explains. “African rhythms interlock in a different way.” (Do they have rim shots in Ghana?)
Semantics aside, the series is indeed dedicated to traditional African music—acoustic performances, in other words, not the featured artists’ usual fusion experiments. The café’s narrow, warmly decorated basement seats about 60 at candlelit tables. This ensures an intimate experience—or, if you’re chatting with a friend, a chorus of urgent shushing. Drummer Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna and his five-person American ensemble sold out the first night (each night consists of two sets), and it’s easy to see why. Squeezed onto the tiny stage, which is usually reserved for lone spoken-wordies, the group offered an experience rarely found in New York City, one which is not even widely available on record: unadulterated renditions of culture-specific styles that are handed down over generations, and studied by a master over his entire lifetime.
Lunna plays the “talking drum,” an hourglass-shaped instrument with two goatskin heads connected by leather tendons that, when squeezed in the crook of the left elbow, change the drum’s pitch and resonance—thereby imitating the inflections of Dagbanli, the tonal language long spoken by West Africa’s Dagomba people, for whom Lunna is literally a historian. He explained in hushed English that his is “healing music.” Audience members pushed back their chairs and approached Lunna, placing dollar bills on his forehead as symbols of their appreciation. (The bills aren’t as symbolic at what the academics would call “life-cycle” events back home, where no one’s collecting at the door.) And during the group’s final, high-energy “recreational” number, Lunna’s nephew even got up to dance, while the talking drums shouted.
The series continues this Friday, with accomplished fusionist Balla Tounkara’s specially convened kora and balafon trio. (The Mandinka kora is a harp made with 21 strings and a gourd, and the balafon essentially a wooden xylophone.) Tounkara—who lived and performed in Greenwich Village after leaving Mali, and now lives in Boston—has played with world superstars like Youssou N’Dour, and his uncle is the renowned lead guitarist of the Super Rail Band. In June, another trio—Bernard Woma (Ghanaian master and teacher in the U.S.), Valerie Naranjo (arranger for the Saturday Night Live band), and Barry Olsen (prominent local Latin music session player)—will round out the currently scheduled lineup with sets devoted to the gyil, which is similar to the balafon. “We just want to bring African music out of the harsh light of the lecture hall and into the club,” Cane says. He and Caplan are doing exactly that, in spite of themselves.