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Sounds of South Africa at the New York City Center, November 16

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On November 16, Sounds of South Africa graced New York's City Center. Featuring performances by legends such as Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim, as well as the American concert debut of the venerable Soweto String Quartet, this evening functioned partly as a South African music showcase and partly as an extravagant commercial by the evening's hosts, inviting the audience to visit South Africa.
Opening the concert was the United States concert debut of the Soweto String Quartet, performing with vocalist Khanyo, a Sarafina alumna. The SSQ's debut in the US is awfully late, as they've been performing together since the 1980s, and as their sound is almost tailor-made to appeal to the worldbeat aesthetic. They were featured exclusively on a single piece: the swinging, catchy kwela-styled "Eureka from their 1996 album Renaissance, which came across quite stunningly. As their debut demonstrated, the Soweto String Quartet's albums do not do them justice. Live, they produce a richer, deeper sound, and they swing harder. Judging by the audience reaction to their solo piece, it's quite probable that New York will be seeing them again soon.
The remainder of their performance was with Khanyo, but still culled from repertoire that is standard to South Africa and also material they've recorded: "Nytilo Nytilo, "Pata Pata, and the ever-popular "Imbube (known in America as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight ). Khanyo is something of a Miriam Makeba in the making: "a tremendously powerful singer at home in more traditional styles to South Africa, but also in jazz, gospel, and R&B. It would be nice to hear more of her in the future.
The downside to the set was the canned back-up band supporting the SSQ and Khanyo. Granted, bringing that many musicians from South Africa for a 30-minute set is not terribly viable, so one can understand the decision. Still, it would be preferable to see and hear the full band at their next concert.

Following the Khanyo/SSQ set was a solo piano performance by Abdullah Ibrahim. Per his style, Ibrahim's set was a tapestry-like performance of his compositions threaded together without pause. And as on past occasions, the piece "Blue Bolero seemed to function as a segue for him, allowing him to work his way from piece to piece.

Abdullah Ibrahim's minimalist approach to piano playing may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who like it, this set was especially good: a sprightly take on "Soweto Is Where It's At and a long, rhapsodic performance of "Blues for a Hip King. Generally, one hears him nowadays with his excellent trio, so this performance had some surprises. Solo, Ibrahim was far more fluid and involved in his playing, employing more runs than he normally does, and even hints of dissonances that recalled his playing in the 1960s. Some members of the audience may have gotten restless towards the end, and the multiple cell phone rings were unwelcome, but judging by the applause, it seems most people were aware they were witnessing a truly special performance here.

Closing out the show was Hugh Masekela, performing with a band that includes longtime friends of his, such as keyboardist Tony Cedras, bassist Bakithi Khumalo and, most importantly, saxophonist Morris Goldberg. Goldberg, a South African musician who arrived in the United States around the same time as Masekela, provides an excellent stage counterpart and sometime foil to Masekela. While Masekela's trumpet is bright and urgent, Goldberg's saxophone tends more towards a richer, full-bodied sound. Sometimes he embarks on his own flights, but generally he seems to sing out powerful, thoughtful, R&B-influenced lines. Additionally, Goldberg's deadpan stage behavior allows him to hold his own against Masekela's hamming. The two of them performing together are a truly powerful team.

The band worked its way through a number of Masekela's classics, such as "Stimela and "Grazing in the Grass, as well as some relatively newer works, such as "Happy Mama from his 2002 album Time. Given Masekela's recent performance here at SOB's, consisting solely of classics, it was a welcome change to hear some of the newer works.

Individually, each of the performers contributed some excellent playing. Cedras and Khumalo are both criminally underrated on their respective instruments, and Goldberg and Masekela's instrumental dialogue was fantastic to hear. However, as a whole, the band felt a little underpowered. This may have been because of the venue: the City Center is fairly large, and perhaps the band just wasn't amplified enough. However, the band also didn't seem altogether comfortable as a whole. Maybe just a bit of an off night for them, but it was noticeable.

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