The wooden, saloon-styled front doors that face Saratoga’s Phila Street were wide open, welcoming in an audience to take their seats at Caffe Lena last Friday evening.
Who was playing?
Mbira master Forward Kwenda of Zimbabwe. Often called the thumb piano, the mbira’s distinctive sound is akin to the toy piano, but with more of a melodic staccato in its sonic signature.
The room was comfortably full with a mix of international people – some from Africa, but most were just world-music fans who had come from all over the region. What they all had in common is a love for African music, a regrettably rare concert occurrence here in Nippertown.
The 48-year-old Kwenda sat on the stage with his mbira cradled in a gourd shell for amplification, adding to the resonance of his instrument’s sound – no less so than putting a speaker in a wooden cabinet to give it its tone. He began to weave a hypnotic tapestry of rhythmic melodies to propel his vocal songs.
Only six months in this country and already touring as a headlining performer, Kwenda’s performance didn’t shout out loud; it whispered. And the audience leaned in to hear every drop.
Kwenda was joined later in the evening by Satya Ferreira playing alongside the master on the mbira and superb vocal accompaniment. She has studied the instrument for more than a dozen years. And adding percussive accents to the tunes was Jonathan Greene. Using hand-held rattles, he took the place of the drummer in a traditional trio by keeping the beat.
Kwenda improvised much of the music that night within a compositional framework; no wonder – he has been dubbed “the Coltrane of the mbira.”
For some, the performance was something spiritual in nature, but for all, it was a captivating experience.
For those interested to experience this magnificent musician first hand, Forward Kwenda will be performing at a house concert in North Adams on Saturday July 16. For more information, call (413) 346-4409.
Review and photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk