Crocodile River Music Sets Off Fireworks
By Lucy Gellman, New Haven Independant
“Can anyone tell me what this is called?” asked Issa Coulibaly, hoisting his hollow and hefty drum high enough for the audience to see it. He turned it slowly at his waist, taut ropes shifting at its sides.
A small but steady voice rose from the middle of the tent. Might it be a djembe? it wondered aloud.
“Yes!” Coulibaly shouted triumphantly, easing the audience into the history of the djembe, a Malian drum that would soon transport West African rhythms to a little Connecticut stage. As he demonstrated its sound, a few pint-sized listeners got up to dance, enthralled by a new sound in their lives.
This kind of banter-turned-musicology-lesson punctuatedCrocodile River Music’s spellbinding performance on Friday afternoon, when they rocked the International Festival of Arts and Ideas’ Family Stage for a crowd of over 100. Founded in 2010, the group exists in a primarily educational capacity, providing lessons, music workshops, and artist residencies to over 15,000 students and hundreds of seniors across New England.
But don’t let their mission fool you for a second. Crocodile River Music is not just for kids, nor is it just for the very old for whom they perform, who often stick around for the group’s frequent tributes to Harry Belafonte and 1950s calypso. The band’s sound, which ranges from cross-continental African rhythm and music to African diasporic melodies, particularly Brazilian and Caribbean, creates something refreshing and — to the Festival, pretty unique — for global citizens of all ages.
“This music can be accessible to everyone from three years old … I think that’s the youngest we’ve worked with … to a 90-year-old who we played with last week. There’s a lot of joy, a lot of smiling,” said Director Zach Combs, sweaty and grinning after an hour-long set.“You know all the trouble the country’s having right now. To be up here with three white guys and three black guys making people happy — that’s all that matters,” he added.
How the group has steered their talent into pure happiness — into Combs’ “all that matters” — is more musically complex than members give themselves credit for. The artists are masters of their instruments. In one moment, balafon genius Balla Kouyate was educating students about Malian praise songs; in the next, he turned the tent into a staging ground for aural fireworks, the music wrapping audience members in the most delicious, welcoming web.
He wasn’t alone. As Coulibaly struck the djembe, his hands seemed to sing with glee, his face breaking into a wide smile as he drew whoops from an audience that included Machine de Cirque’s extraordinary percussionist and composer Frédéric Lebrasseur. As Combs joined in, that smile only got wider, the two watching closely as more than 50 of New Haven’s smallest citizens, grappling with the big and newfound freedoms of summer vacation, stood up to dance it out with each other and their willing chaperones.
There were a couple of dance parties this festival around. Cry You One married experimental theater, community activism, and movement. Sambaleza and The Gaslight Tinkers got a New Haven locals on their feet.
Ibeyi and Angelique Kidjo showed New Haven how to hold its own in a downpour and, heeding their lead, Plena Libre (hold on for a bangin’ article from Sebastian Medina-Tayac) closed out a pouring Saturday night with an all-stops-pulled outpouring of energy that had salsa performed across the Green.
On Friday, that was Crocodile River Music’s mantra too. At every turn, the group involved the audience in some new way. Their message? Clear enough. Just get up and move if it feels right. Surely, the rest will figure itself out.
Lucy Gellman Photo