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Pop Music Review : Ngo Turns Library Into Dance Hall


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — County nightclubs would have to start lending out a lot of mighty fine books to offset the musical competition they're being given lately by the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.

For several seasons the library's Performing and Visual Arts series has brought a diverse range of performers to its stage, but this summer organizers seem to have turned up the heat.

The range of music they've presented is truly global, and the library's viability as a medium for music was more than cemented in June by a stunning performance by bluesman John Hammond, in which the singer-guitarist delivered what may have been his most emotional and fulfilling show ever in these environs.

Not only is the library's courtyard a fine concert space, but Saturday night under a full moon, Samba Ngo and his band proved the locale also doubles splendidly as a Zairian dance hall. For both of the evening's two packed performances, those in the audience who weren't dancing in their seats were taking advantage of the lawn at both sides of the stage to dance nonstop to the physically transporting music.

The first show began, humbly enough, with Zairian-born Ngo (pronounced in-Go ) soloing on likembe , a Congolese variant on the kalimba thumb piano made from a gourd. He then proceeded to get more musical variety out of a Samuel Adams bottle--blowing over its top-- than one would have thought possible. After that, he switched to his main instrument, a chrome-plated electric guitar, and started to churn.

Ngo and his six-piece band play soukous music, which translates to "having a good time." An apt appellation, as the music has a remarkable bounce and sense of celebration to it, mixing Congolese tradition, Western pop and soul and Latin and Caribbean influences. Ngo's instrumentation could be that of any rock band: two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, congas and a dancer-percussionist. But the instruments are played in a decidedly non-Western manner. Like the popular music of other African climes, the guitars are finger-picked in rhythmic patterns that mimic the thumb piano. They and the other instruments mesh in a weave that creates a mood of timeless constancy, all the while flowing and changing in ways both subtle and overt.

The members of his interracial band come from both Africa and the United States, where Ngo has been based for several years in Santa Cruz. His second guitarist, Danjuma Adamu, hails from Nigeria, where he formerly played with political-musical firebrand Fela Kuti. He took some inventive solos but was even more remarkable in the way he and Ngo locked into propulsive grooves.

Though Ngo plays and sings within a cultural context, he doesn't sacrifice personality. He is an ebullient, quirky performer. His guitar soloing often seemed conversational, by turns emphatic and emotional or full of musical jests, unexpected rhythmic twists and dissonant chords.

Vocally he was even freer: yodeling, emulating the growly throat singing of South African groaners , soul shouting and crooning. And, regardless of the three languages (Lingala, French and English) he sang in, the lyrics reached out to listeners. Without seeming contrived, he also was an electric showman, with riveting, athletic stage moves and seemingly a different facial expression to accompany each note he played. Sometimes he got down on his knees to play directly to the children gathered in front of the stage.

As in much African music, there were morals woven into the songs. He introduced the number "Malonga" as being a musical trip to his village, but afterward explained that implicit also in that notion of community was the understanding of self respect and respect for others, and how without communication it is impossible to grow.

In "Mambu," one of his few forays in English, he related, with sympathy and humor, an exchange he'd had with a friend who'd vowed never to fall in love again. "But if you no love somebody, you're going to live life like a zombie," he declared.

Though Ngo's hourlong first show was a brief affair by most African standards, his second show stretched over two hours, and it truly was a stretch. Compact numbers from the first set tripled in length, growing like some organic thing drawing energy from the dancers (which included series director Jose Aponte, who is one funky librarian). Introducing one song, Ngo said, "Let's dance now, who knows tomorrow? The truth is the music."

Perhaps so. It was jubilant, enthralling stuff--as musically complex and free-flying as it was rooted in irrefutable rhythms--which allowed a listener scant time to disengage from it, but when one did and looked around the courtyard, it was to realize " This is what it's all about."

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