We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


Kevin Nathaniel, Yacouba Sissoko, Dawn Padmore, Ayansola Adedeji, and Olusegun Ajayi

We know Jessica Gould as a singer, an expert in Pre-Romantic Music, and as the Founder and Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. Her original programming and exemplary scholarship in support of these programs have instilled within us a willingness to follow her wherever she takes us. Last night at the Bernie Wohl Center, she joined with Afro Roots Tuesdays to take us to Western Africa with Ensemble Longbor Mor.

This ensemble comprises the engaging songbird Dawn Padmore, kora player Yacouba Sissoko, percussionist Olusegun Ajayi, mbira player Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, and Adedeji Ayansola who can make his drum talk. That's not a misprint!

The music we heard has been passed down for centuries among the various peoples of West Africa and showcases both their diversity and unity. The name Ensemble Longbor Mor takes its name from the Vai language which is spoken in Liberia and translates as "people singing". Ms. Padmore's maternal grandmother has Vai roots.

The evening felt more like a celebration than a concert, although we would be happy to sit still and listen to Ms. Padmore's gorgeous voice for several hours in a formal recital hall.  This astonishing artist comes across as gloriously spontaneous, both in her description of each song and in her vocalism.

There was no awareness of technique, although her voice teacher Ira Siff (present in the audience) is of great renown. Similarly, her vocal coach Brian Holman (also present) must have contributed a great deal. 

Any singer could learn a thing or two from her warm and welcoming stage presence. She made the audience feel like a collection of friends and family at a social gathering. At one point, to emphasize the spirit of the evening, she enlisted an audience member to dance with her. 

Her voice is luxurious in tone and able to negotiate whatever she asks of it, making it all look effortless. Spirited gestures accompanied the singing as she used her entire body. Her generosity of spirit illuminated every story she told, and indeed, most of the songs told stories--stories of birth, death, pregnancy, illness, gossip, and family issues.

We especially enjoyed the a capella singing in the first of six Yoruba Folk Songs and the high lying tessitura of the first of four Igbo Songs.

Ensemble Longbor Mor amazed us with their virtuosic playing. We were reminded in some ways of a jazz group improvising; the spirit of joy in making music was contagious. The rhythms were complex in nature and just as difficult to wrap one's ears around as the rhythms of flamenco music.

The Kora is the most famous of Africa's stringed instruments. It has no frets and no bow. Rather it is played by the simultaneous plucking of 21 strings by both hands. The strings, each of a different pitch, are affixed to a large calabash cut in half and covered with goatskin stretched and fixed with leather laces. There is a long wooden neck made of hardwood. Mr. Sissoko's virtuosity was impressive, revealing several interwoven melodies. The sound was, to our ears, something between that of a harp and that of a celeste.

The other instrument that grabbed our attention was the talking drum. We couldn't figure out how Mr. Ayansola could make the drum talk but we read the program later and learned its secrets. The pitch is regulated by the player squeezing the drum between his arm and his ribcage which moves the leather tension cords connecting the two heads of this hourglass shaped instrument. It is struck with a wooden stick that has a crook on the end. We refer you, dear reader, to the carousel of photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

Completing the ensemble is a pair of drums which look like what we call Congo Drums, some shaken gourds (likely ancestors to some present day percussion instruments) and the unique Mbira or thumb piano. This instrument was not so strange to us since we had one of our own some years ago. What was different about Mr. Hylton's Mbira was that it was set in a calabash which enhanced the sound.

Although this was just a taste of what West African music has to offer, our appetite was whetted. Next month's concert by Salon/Sanctuary will also be unusual; Carthage Conquer'd; Dreams of Tunis in the Baroque Imagination will pit a Baroque ensemble and a North African ensemble improvising in the Taksim manner.  Think Queen Dido!

© meche kroop

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