African rhythm on tour
The African Showboyz from Ghana have never toured in Canada before — never mind in frigid February.
But group founder Napoleon Sabbah isn’t worried about the Alberta winter, saying his band of brothers perform such energetic music and dancing that they work up a sweat during shows, anyway.
“Even if it’s (below) zero degrees, it heats up,” said Sabbah, whose African Showboyz is performing on Thursday, Feb. 21, with the Mickey Hart Band at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.
Sabbah is very excited to be playing in Canada — especially with Hart, a percussionist and musicologist who’s best known as one of two drummers in the rock band Grateful Dead.
Hart, along with fellow Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann earned the nickname “the rhythm devils,” for their eclectic beats that helped fuse elements of rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, country, improvisational jazz and psychedelia.
The two-time Grammy Award winner’s reputation as a musical heavyweight is known in Ghana, said Sabbah, whose godfather first told him about Hart, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We did not know the Grateful Dead, but we saw on the Internet that Mickey Hart is a big star,” said Sabbah.
The African Showboyz will open the Red Deer concert with their upbeat, infectious, rhythm-driven music played on traditional African instruments, including the kone, a two-string African guitar.
Then the eight-member Mickey Hart Band will play its rhythm-based tunes that encompass western and world music. The ensemble will feature original tunes by Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter, along with some covers of Grateful Dead songs and tunes from Hart’s album Mysterium Tremendum.
This “musical history of the universe” was created by taking light, radio waves, and other electromagnetic radiation given off by the sun, planets, stars, and galaxies, and using computers to transform them into sound waves. Hart has stated, “I have combined sonic images of the formation of our universe with sounds drawn from musical instruments. It’s all about the vibrations that make up the infinite universe.”
Before the evening’s done, both the African Showboyz and The Mickey Hart Band will perform together. Sabbah said the African and western sounds blend beautifully. “It sounds very good together. Mickey Hart is very, very unique and we play without our African instruments . . . people love it.”
People have been flocking to see the African Showboyz since the group formed in 1983.
Sabbah said he had a vision of his grandfather, during a juju ceremony, telling him to go on a journey to share the musical culture of Ghana with the world.
Sabbah initially got three of his brothers together as a band. But by 1987, it was five brothers — Joseph, Moses, Isaac, Francis and J.J. They made their own instruments from the bones and hides of animals killed to honour their grandfather, who was the village chief. And Isaac was taught village dances to accompany the music from traditional percussive and string instruments from Ghana — the kone, siyak, bind douk, bin bill and ton ton sanson.
The African Showboyz began touring neighbouring countries, including Sengal, Togo, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Fasso and Sierra Leone.
Sabbah said eventually his group got so well known that they attracted enough backing for European and Australian concerts.
In recent years, a U.S. booking agency has contacted the group for North American tours, including the latest with the Mickey Hart Band that will stretch from New Mexico to Alberta.
The African Showboyz have performed at the Joshua Tree Festival, the Sierra Nevada Music Festival, Earthdance and many others. In 2009, the group was featured in the documentary 1 Giant Leap.
Sabbah admitted that coming to America is “difficult” because of complicated visa requirements, “but the people you meet here are very, very good people.”
The world of travel is now very different than when his band first started. He recalled that in the early 1980s, he and his brothers carried no documentation, but simply performed for immigration officials at the borders of various African countries and were permitted to cross. “There are passport rules now.”
Sabbah looks forward to sharing his music with Canadians for the first time.