Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brand New, You're Ancient

The annual Donau Insel Fest is a sprawling, drunken, fried food and bad music party along the Danube. Six hundred thousand people attended this year—that’s about one third of the population of Vienna. It’s not a party which generally inspires life-affirming epiphanies. But that’s what I got at the Donau Insel Fest this weekend.

We got there just as the Masibambane Marimba Band was walking onstage. They are seven young women and three young men, and they look to be between the ages of 13 and 17. They wear matching shift dresses and shirts. They play four big marimbas and a couple of drums. Sometimes a couple of the young women sing. They are awesome.

At the front, stage right, is the Angus Young chair, where several of the older girls knock out the scorching, knarly leads. Sometimes they smile, or jive a little bit, but they always add scattering spluttering super-funky solos on top of everything else. But as with AC/DC, it’s almost more fun to watch the back line-the steady-on, never faltering rhythm monster, the real melody maker. The MMB’s Malcolm Young is a younger, very serious girl who pokes her tongue into her cheek as she lays down unshakeable, beautifully melodic lines. I don’t think she’d stop even if an earthquake hit Vienna.

I cycled through the band, picking a new favorite musician every few minutes. Each of them, especially the young women, had their own style and charm: one smiled so reflexively, a born performer; another, with smaller eyes, swept around the stage with such quiet authority, yet barely called attention to herself. It was also like the Beatles: all of them great, but each with their own ‘thing.’ Then they broke into ‘Amazing Grace.’

I think I would have been moved even if I wasn’t already in love with two young brown girls.

And even as I was having such a blast watching the band, and loving the idea of my Ethiopian-Austrian and Nigerian-Austrian daughters watching them too, I was struck by something else. I realized I’ve always loved the sound that comes out of a marimba—it’s a very lovable thing, so full and round and colorful.

The Masibambane Marimba Band made me think of the classic techno track “Voodoo Ray” by A Guy Called Gerald. In that old (1988) ditty, woven between the drum machine beats and the acid synthesizers is a melody line that rings clear and round, and sounds a bit like a marimba. It’s actually another synth, I think, but it doesn’t matter: a great deal of the beauty and funkadelicism of “Voodoo Ray” derives from that mellifluous, bell-like tune. In other words, the motor of this electronic music masterpiece is actually a sound that could have been made on wooden instruments in South Africa and Zimbabwe hundreds of years ago.

It made me think that there are no new sounds, only new ways to make them.

The genius of that, and the deep, historical continuity too, made me smile for the rest of that sunny Saturday.

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