Mark Ernestus's Ndagga Rhythm Force in New York

  • Two and a half hours of complex rhythms and exuberant dance moves.
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  • For the devotee, Saturday's event at Pioneer Works carried an air of déjà vu. The versatile arts venue, in collaboration with the experimental music series Blank Forms, originally set out to host Mark Ernestus's Ndagga Rhythm Force six months earlier, only to be foiled by visa issues. Most of the Senegalese musicians couldn't enter the US, and five days before the scheduled performance, it was announced that Ernestus would instead DJ dancehall and dubwise, accompanied only by the band's vocalist, Mbene Diatta Seck, and dancer Fatou Wore Mboup. That rainy August night was a fun excuse to trek to Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood that's famously distant from a subway stop. The event, though, was under-attended and a bit shapeless, plus the closest train, the G, wasn't running that night. The whole thing felt like a wash, which is why it was wonderful when Pioneer Works and Blank Forms were able to not only reschedule the show relatively quickly, but generate just as much excitement for the new date. Pioneer Works' narrow yet cavernous space wasn't quite suited to Ndagga Rhythm Force, a group whose wildly steady energy is as enjoyable seen as it is heard. But as the band opened with a sprawling version of "Yermande," it became clear that the event was intended to feel more like a party than a concert. Audience members chatted freely and occasionally went up close to watch the band, before drawing back when they wanted more room to dance. Ernestus never performs onstage with the group, but instead stays mostly by the soundboard, advising the sound tech and manning the levels himself. He seemed more like a nervous party promoter than a headliner, wading through the crowd between the stage and the sound booth as if putting out fires at a rave. His hand is discernible in the music, though—most obviously in "Walo Walo." The seven-piece outfit rocked to this rhythm for what must have been 20 minutes, a tight bass arpeggio paired with an intermittent rimshot sample. Its hypnotising effect would have been recognisable to any Rhythm & Sound fan. Ndagga Rhythm Force performed under unchanging white light for the duration, though their audience interaction and general elation filled the room out as well as a more dynamic lighting rig might have. Wore Mboup brought punters onstage to dance, spat water into the crowd and asked everyone in the room to help her find a husband. At one point, she stole a band member's drum and had him play as she held it on her shoulder. By contrast, Diatta Seck's staid vocals and demeanor were a counterpoint to her partner's mirthful antics. Their playful jostling revealed the alternating heft and levity of this seriously groovy music. The group's instrumentation is almost entirely percussive, composed of sabars, talking drums, a drum kit and a marimba synth. Given the amount of energy involved, it was impressive to hear them play just six pieces in a nearly two-and-a-half hour performance. To a crowd more used to hearing DJs mix out of a track every five minutes or so, the band offered a reminder of the joy to be found in deep engagement with complex rhythms. Sweat dripped from the players' smiling faces and splashed back off the drum heads. One forgets that knobs and faders don't respond with so much personality. Photo credit / Walter Wlodarczyk