26 October 2005

The Sahel Opera: Africans Sing for Themselves

Comoros Beach: flying merchant  25.289.03 Well, unless you're in Berkeley today, your chances of seeing the marvelous Comoros singer/songwriter Nawal this year just ran out. Her 20-show US tour concludes at Ashkenaz tonight. She swung through Olympia Monday, and her show at Traditions Cafe was well-attended and wonderfully uplifting. From her opening vocal solo, it was clear that Nawal's roots lie in Muslim Africa. Her trio, with brother Idriss Mlanao on bass and Melissa Cara Rigoli on mbira and percussion, fed off the audience's energy and produced an evening of sparse but rich music, often with a spiritual, trance-like vibe. You don't often get that much spirit on a Monday night, and it's got to be culturally healing to have Americans chanting in Arabic about peace.

After the show, I talked with Nawal and found out about a fascinating project she's involved in. Along with Góo Ba (Senegal), Zé Manel (Guinea Bissau), and Tunde Jegede (Nigeria), she's writing something called the Sahel Opera. Yep, that kind of opera. Of course, along with the operatic singing, you can expect some heavy African content (the music director is Wasis Diop!). The opera's website says it "scrutinizes the relation between Europe and Africa in a critical and humorous way."

The Sahel region is generally taken to include the lands between the Sahara to the north and the savannas to the south. Which means that small islands near Madagascar aren't traditionally included. But Nawal was pursuasive in her argument for inclusion, the Comoros being similarly Muslim and French-speaking. So the islander was accepted.

If you're from the Sahel, take note that auditions for the Sahel Opera are in April and May 2006, and the opera will premier in Bamako in November 2006 before embarking on a tour of the Sahel countries and beyond. I'll share more details when available, or check the opera's website.

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