His show at Yuyintang was one which everyone needed to see, but those who needed to see it the most were probably not there. The set was rhapsodic. Episodes of virtuosity on multiple instruments were interspersed with stories, aphorisms, and goofiness. In other words, it was quintessentially African.
I think I arrived near the beginning, and it was just Bangourake with the kora, a very imposing looking instrument which he claimed is one of the first in history, an African harp. The long neck with many tuners extends from a very large gourd at the bottom, called a calabash. There are 21 strings attached and they are played facing the player, between the legs on the ground. The sound is gentle like the European harp you are used to, and the rhythms and harmonies are complex. He played around with this for a while, singing, stopping, telling stories of the instrument’s origin in West Africa. It was hypnotic.
Then, abruptly, Bangourake summoned one of his collaborators for the night and announced he was ready to play the djembe, whose name means, “symbol of joy”, which he was eager to explain. The atmosphere was intimate, but the enthusiastic crowd changed audibly. You could tell what everyone wanted to hear, although I was really enjoying the kora routines.
Bangourake began working out on the djembe alone, sometimes calling out while he was playing, sometimes gesticulating, sometimes telling stories about from whence the djembe comes. He says basically that after dinner in the villages, the women would come out and sing and dance and clap while the men would watch. Soon, they wondered what the men could do. So that’s why the djembe was invented.
All the while, we were treated to fantastic displays of manual dexterity, hands hitting animal skin and wood at tremendous force in unfathomable patterns. It was like helicopter blades beating with a strip of aluminum thrust into their path at odd but perfect intervals. Bangourake was sinewy and completely up to the task of exerting the necessary force for maximum resonance, but really the djembe is not a gross motor instrument. The nuances in tone come from minute hand placements and gestures. All the rest is inspiration, discipline, and lots of practice.
Bangourake went on alone like this for a while, wowing the crowd with his technique. He even tried to engage us in a rhythm in two parts that was to be clapped by the audience. This thrilled me because I have long been enthralled by the adventures of Chinese audiences trying to clap on beat. Needless to say, it was an aborted effort and then Bangourake fixed everything for us by effortlessly pounding out a poly-rhythmic masterpiece for a few moments.
Then he called out his collaborators for the evening, three Hangzhou ren on dun duns and bells, and a Taiwanese guy on another djembe. They played two more cycles with Bangourake and looked damn happy to be doing so. Good for them. It was fun and sounded great. Bangourake came out for an encore solo demonstration.
What I meant from the beginning when I said the people who needed to be there were not present is that the crowd was small and had an unavoidable atmosphere of preaching to the choir. Bangourake was an amiable, personable, charismatic, supremely talented, African man. This is what needs to be introduced to mass Chinese audiences, who I have always felt need to know more about African culture in order to erase long-standing prejudices but, of course, they are not the only ones.
Bangourake’s message of music, togetherness, and love was one that we could all hear for the first time all over again.