Little did Valley percussionist Tony Vacca know what would come of trading talking drum riffs with Massamba Diop. Diop plays with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal, and back in 1995, Vacca found himself backstage at the Iron Horse, drum in hand, playing with Diop while Maal took in the musical exchange. Diop offered Vacca plenty of examples of his virtuosic playing, and Vacca showed Diop that an American can catch on to the subtleties and complexities of African drumming. Maal and Diop suggested Vacca visit Senegal.
From that initial good-willed exchange came a transatlantic relationship of yet grander scale, one that's still going on. Scratch the surface of what's now dubbed the Senegal-America Project, and Vacca—always animated, aglow with the connections he's fostered and his clear joy in playing the music he's come to love—embarks on a series of stories, each of which branches into other stories. Kids from a middle school in Connecticut went to Dakar, Senegal and bought 1,000 mosquito nets for the residents of Guinaw Rail, a neighborhood of the city. But things hardly end there: Vacca then spins a tale of the welcome the kids got, and a massive street party during which a few men took on the role of humans possessed by lions, equal parts imposing enforcers and playful dancers. The lions themselves prompt another story about their unique cultural role.
Such remarkable experiences sprang from the friendship Vacca built with Diop, a friendship which has taken Vacca to Senegal repeatedly, and brought Diop and other musicians to our shores in return. Early on in his friendship with Diop, Vacca got the chance to play with Maal in Senegal.
"He told me maybe I should stay an extra couple of days," says Vacca. "I knew something was up, but I wasn't sure what."
He stayed, and Maal (whose popularity in Senegal Vacca compares with Bruce Springsteen's here) invited him over to Television Senegal to do some playing. Vacca says he was surprised at what he found there: "The place could probably comfortably hold 40, but there were probably 240 people there."
There were also cameras, of course, but only later did Vacca realize that he'd participated in a live broadcast seen all over Senegal. Being seen in such a public way with a nationally revered musician raised his profile considerably: "I was the white guy who'd played with God!"
(On the Senegal-America Project website, arts-are-essential.org, you can see video of Vacca joining Maal in another concert at a soccer stadium in Dakar in 2006, and find out more about the project in general.)
Vacca regularly visits schools with Diop to teach kids about African music and cultural connections, and one of those school visits led to an expansion of the Senegal-America Project. A student's mother named Jean Butler worked as a booking agent, at first helping organize Vacca's school visits, and eventually founded a group (Arts Are Essential) to foster the broader cultural exchange between Senegal and America. That effort became a non-profit in 2003, and led to students heading from New England to Senegal (where they gave residents of Guinaw Rail all those moquito nets). Further cultural exchange trips since have included teachers and artists, and the focus of Arts Are Essential also includes bringing artist-educators into schools. The April 3 Senegal-America Project concert helps fund such efforts.
On a late '90s trip to Africa, Vacca and band stayed at Massamba Diop's home, an overcrowded but apparently highly satisfying and entertaining circumstance. Among the many locals who dropped by was a rap group from the neighborhood. Vacca was impressed by the youngsters, who called themselves Gokh-Bi System (neighborhood system), and before long they ended up visiting his old apartment in Easthampton's Eastworks, and recording, with Vacca's help, a compelling record combining traditional Senegalese music with distinctive hip-hop stylings.
Several trips later, Gokh-Bi System's members moved to the U.S. to continue spreading their African-flavored hip-hop word, and now they reside in Northampton and enjoy a growing reputation that has seen them playing shows alongside some pretty well-known company: Kanye West, Tribe Called Quest, Angelique Kidjo, Toots and The Maytals, Michael Franti and Erykah Badu. They join Tony Vacca and World Rhythms Ensemble at the Senegal-America Project show with their uplifting brand of hip-hop.
Vacca's World Rhythms Ensemble is a powerful group of players. Vacca leads the proceedings with spoken word and a setup combining the impressive balafon (a sort of woody, approximately pitched ancestor of xylophone and marimba) with all sorts of percussive instruments. He is joined by bassist Joe Sallins, electric violinist Derrik Jordan, saxophonist Tim Moran, and percussionist Steve Leicach. Together, they create a hard-hitting, hard-grooving brand of world music that's equal parts improvisation and carefully orchestrated musical movements.
Listen closely, and you'll be rewarded by the sophistication of the musical interplay both rhythmically and melodically. Simply relax and enjoy the vibe, and you'll be rewarded as well—the group seldom fails to leave crowds smiling and nodding to the polyrhythmic sounds.
Gokh-Bi System and World Rhythms are joined by two guests from Senegal as well: dancer Abdou Sarr and Boubacar Diebate, who plays the harp-like kora. That is a promising combination: when Vacca recorded the members of his band collaborating with Senegalese musicians on 2006's Senegal-America Project, the results were astounding. American elements—hip-hop, poetry, Sallins' funky lines—mingle with very African vocals, rhythms and instrumentation to create something that transcends both traditions in gripping fashion.
Talk to Vacca for long, and he turns to deeper matters, to the connections fostered by music. He gets carried away, in the best possible sense, by the heart of the African sounds he's drawn to. Something about the modest appearance of instruments cobbled together from gourds, wood and string belies the complex nature of the music; that combination of simple and complex makes for a distinct magic. It taps into the ancient and archetypal, but it manifests a currency and a drive that's irresistible.
The overall project began with musical connection, but Vacca sees the humanitarian, educational and cultural effort as a grand way to help kids and adults become "global citizens," not just hear global sounds.
"This is an exchange, and it has to be," says Vacca. "We start with what we have in common: friendship, skills, the idea that we're connected. It's like the griots [musical storytellers]—they are servants of the music, the culture, and the people."
Because a search for that kind of connection and transcendence of cultural barriers lies at the core of the Senegal-America Project, taking in the musical side of the project at the Academy offers a starting point for a whole series of connected stories. Listen for long, and you'll hear echoes of all those other stories, stories on top of stories, that the project has brought to life."
Senegal-America Project Benefit with Gokh-Bi System, Tony Vacca and World Rhythms Ensemble, Abdou Sarr and Boubacar Diebate: April 3, 8 p.m., The Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton, $10-25, (413) 584-9032 or academyofmusictheatre.tix.com.