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Samba Ngo: Balancing African Roots, Rhythm and Resonance


It's a common perception that black musicians are treated with more respect in Europe than in the United States.

That has proved true for many American blues and jazz players who can pack houses overseas while being all but ignored in their own country. But Samba Ngo, an African-born musician who in 1986 moved to Santa Cruz after almost 20 years in Paris, says he finds himself more comfortable here, both musically and personally.

Not that Ngo doesn't face racism in the United States; it's just easier to spot.

"Here I feel good; here I feel easier in me being black. Here I can identify the racist," he explained in a phone interview from his home. "My experience [in France] was too much hypocrisy. Here it's clear. I can see the bullet coming."

It's also been easier for Ngo to carve out his own identity here than in Paris, which is home to a large community of expatriate African musicians. In the United States, Ngo has steadily built a following with his infectious and highly personal melding of roots and pop styles from Africa and America.

It's a slow process, he acknowledges: "African music doesn't have a network yet, so that takes time. And they don't know what [musical] department to put me, so that is a challenge too."

He brings his band--an international ensemble of Africans and black and white Americans--to the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library on Saturday for the third year running, qualifying Orange County as a regular stop on his busy touring circuit.

While some audiences respond mainly to the dance rhythms, he feels, those who attend his Capistrano shows also respond to the music's message, which comes across not only in the lyrics but also in what he terms its "resonance."

"For me, music is a spiritual thing; it's not only [technique]," he says. "I feel music is a part of life, of everybody, and because of that I want to express music in its pure essence."

Ngo insists on making music that speaks to him spiritually, regardless of whether it is commercially oriented. At the same time, he is realistic about the need to find an audience--and to make a living. Balancing them can be difficult, but it is a struggle he vows to maintain.

"I want to eat, but I want to eat while expressing something of my personality," he says. "If I'm blue, I give blue. If I'm red, I give red."

For Ngo, something more vital than mere pride is at stake in the fight to remain true to his music.

"For me, that kind of [overtly commercial] music destroys something in the body," he says, while more spiritually grounded music provides nourishment. "The body for me functions exactly like a tree. If you give water and take care of it, you get good fruits."

Ngo, 46, is beginning to reap those fruits. This month, he was informed by Musician magazine that he was a finalist in its prestigious annual music awards, in the category of best international bands. His tape was chosen from among thousands of entries. Judges for the final round will include such industry veterans as Jimmy Jam, Steve Winwood, Adrian Belew and Matthew Sweet.

Recently jazz percussionist Bill Winters invited Ngo to create music for an educational CD-ROM on African animals. Ngo has finished his work on the project and looks forward to more such projects with the San Francisco-based software company Presage.

Ngo also continues to work on two audio CDs--slowly, because he is producing them himself. One is electric, the other acoustic.

The dual projects reflect the multi-pronged interests of this guitarist, likembe (thumb piano) player, singer and songwriter who began his musical education at age 6 in the village where he grew up in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire).

He later moved with his family to neighboring Congo, where he tempered his traditional roots with a stint in an African pop band called Echo Noire. He moved to Paris in 1968, playing in a popular band called Mbamina while exploring the village roots of African music with all the thoroughness of a musicologist.

Those twin strains--traditional and pop--continue to serve him. In concert, he often starts on likembe, moving later to guitar for more up-tempo material.

The goal, he says, is music that moves both the spirit and the feet. "I enjoy [San Juan Capistrano] because people listen and dance," he says, "and I love when the people listen and dance."

* Who: Samba Ngo.

* When: 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday.

* Where: San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real.

* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at Ortega Highway and head west. The library is behind Mission San Juan Capistrano.

* Wherewithal: $3-$6.

* Where to call: (714) 248-7469.

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