Event review: 1st Annual African Dance Concert (Sabar Dancing at Symphony Space)

Date: August 13, 2011
Venue: Symphony Space (NY)

Concert review by Jim Hoey

It was another one of those nights in NYC when I left my place with no expectations, I was simply heading off to hear some African music on the recommendation of a friend. So off to the Symphony Space on the Upper West Side I went. To my surprise, this concert of Sabar music and dancing kicked off with drummers coming in from the back of the theater, and the dancers and singers chanting from backstage until they joined forces at the fore and started to get into their Sabar thing, which is a call and response type dance from Senegal, with drummers beating hard on their skins and interacting and pushing the dancers on and on, improvisationally. From the very start, the drummers cleared the air, prepped the crowd by announcing that this night requires audience energy to be authentic, and then jumped into the opening invocation, getting the crowd to clap in tune with the drum pulse.

Organized by Mussukeba Sane’s, (who was also working with Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe this same weekend), this event, held downstairs at Symphony Space, was titled the 1st Annual African Dance Concert, and featured Mar Gueye and Sheikh Tairou M’Baye from Senegal, as well as the dance group Les Enfants du Soleil. The Senegalese legend of sabar Doudou N’Diaye Rose (author of Senegal’s national anthem) was also scheduled to appear, but unfortunately couldn’t make it for personal reasons.This was the only disappointment of the night. The rest of the performers more than made up for his absence.

The traditional sabar drum, played with a small wooden stick, might be a bit shocking for those who’ve never heard it because it’s more piercing and high-pitched than a regular djembe played by hand (and played LOUD). Both types of these drums were incorporated into the performance, and groups of male and female dancers took turns challenging each other flirtatiously. This type of group improv would be seen at any traditional celebration like a wedding or baby-naming party, and features high jumps, hip twists and leg kicks that make this form of dance particularly physical. When the men go face to face, they simulate fights in dance, often ending with a “ref” breaking it up, or the whole group separating the two and calling for the crowd to judge the winner. During these parts, it was strikingly similar to a break-dancing competition or capoeira.

The kora and bellaphone, two melodic instruments, were also featured exquisitely by soloists, and at the end of the night the troupe invited audience members to get up and shake a bit. There must have been a few sabar students in the house, because a few took up the challenge, and looked pretty good up there.