Savannah Music Festival review: “African Interplay” with Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal and the Lionel Loueke Ensemble

The West African 21-stringed kora is one of the most extraordinary instruments I’ve ever heard.

Too bad I haven’t heard it more often. To my western ears, it sounds like a mix of harp and harpsichord, maybe even banjo. The musician faces the instrument, so it’s almost impossible to sit in a large theater and see the fingers actually meeting the strings, but the visual effect is still almost as striking as the sound. Last night, for the first half of the show called “African Interplay,” Mali native Ballake Sissoko — clad in beautiful white and highlighted with a bright spotlight shooting down on him — captivated the Lucas Theatre audience. I could have spent that hour just listening to the kora, with its meditative, subtle, emotional sound. (The last time a kora was played in Savannah, as far as I know, was Toumani Diabate’s SMF appearance with Bela Fleck in 2009.)

But Sissoko wasn’t alone. French cellist Vincent Segal played too — and controlled the cello in ways I don’t think I’ve ever heard. Much of the time, the baton was set aside, leaving just his hands to move across the strings, with occasional thumps to the wood for percussion. The European and African instruments worked together beautifully. Here’s a clip that captures the sound:

The Lionel Loueke Ensemble played after the short intermission. Loueke has a warm, sometimes deep voice, but the vocals were always subordinate to the music. Segal was back with his cello, with Mark Feldman stunning on violin, Charles Pillow and Walter Blanding playing a variety of woodwinds, Thiokho Diagne on drums, Bob Sadin conducting at times, and Cyro Baptista doing the most fascinating percussion performance I think I have ever seen. He must have used two dozen or so instruments — if they could even be called instruments — and sometimes seemed to be working hard to create very small sounds. There are all sorts of ways to captivate an audience with visuals; Sharon Jones did it in an over-the-top way on Thursday night and Baptista did it Friday with subtle surprises.

Most of the songs had simple names — “Malian Moods,” “Dream” — that seemed aptly vague: there was no way that more sharply defined titles could have done anything but reduce the complexity and richness of the sounds.

Here’s a clip of Loueke, but this obviously does not include the impressive ensemble that performed last night:

The ornate Lucas Theatre — which feels like it has more breadth than depth — was perfect for the intimacy of the production. Disappointingly, there were a lot of open seats, but once the audience moved forward, the overall vibe was great. We were on the front row of the balcony, a spectacular spot for both sounds and visuals at the Lucas. “African Interplay” was not a cheap concert, but that doesn’t fully explain the attendance. On an upbeat note, after seeing Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on Thursday and “African Interplay” last night, it seems that the SMF appears to be successfully expanding its overall audience. I can’t remember ever seeing as many non-whites on hand as there were the last couple of evenings (although the local demographics would suggest even more), and I certainly saw more gay and lesbian attendees at Sharon Jones than I’ve ever seen at an SMF event.

But the problem last night was not about demographics. A show like “African Interplay” does not have much inherent appeal to those who aren’t willing to broaden their own definitions of music, who aren’t willing to take changes becoming familiar with new styles and strange instruments. Those with limited budgets for tickets are likely to pick first from among the performers and styles with which they are already familiar. It’s a testament to the SMF that they’re continuing to program shows like this that are so tricky to promote.