Gokh-bi System's global village music
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 27, 2002) – The name “Gokh-bi System” literally means “neighborhood system,” but the music played by the Senegalese sextet by that name is global in scope, combining traditional village music and dance with American rap, the preeminent American pop export of the last 20 years.

Gokh-bi System brought its global village music to Club Helsinki on Thursday night, and with just a few traditional drums and one ekonting – a kind of African proto-banjo – the group made a huge sound. Most of the ensemble’s music is produced by voices, which were as responsible for rhythm, percussion and texture as were the musical instruments.

Bathie Pouye and Backa Niang kicked off the program with a heraldic rhythm on djembe and tama drums, calling the singers and rappers to the stage. Dressed in colorful traditional costumes from Pikine, their native village near Dakar where the group formed in 1995, rapper/singers Diasse Pouye and Mamadou Ndiaye and Sana Ndiaye, who played the haunting ekonting and sang in an equally haunting tenor, began the vocal part of the evening with a choral number that made use of calls and shouts along with spoken interjections and melody singing.

Numbers ranged from more traditional pieces to others heavily influenced by rap, with Diasse Pouye and Mamadou Ndiaye sharing the MC role in various languages, reputedly five in all, occasionally including English. If some of the meaning of rapping was lost in translation, it was communicated through rhythm. In any case, plenty of hyperactive English rapping is also lost in the sheer, dizzying speed. The MCs introduced the songs, which were generally about peace, brotherhood and human rights, giving listeners something to hold onto.

One piece echoed Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with the English-language refrain “How many children die/Can you tell me why?” Another number, about friendship, drew a connection between the gospel influence on contemporary American r&b and African singing, with the call-and-response vocals morphing into the chorus of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”

Sana Ndiaye’s vocals stood out for their unearthly, plaintive tone, matching the plaintive modality of the three-stringed ekonting. He was like the Senegalese Jimmy Scott or Roy Orbison, and he provided much of the traditional flavor of the show.

Connecting the traditional to the hip-hop was dancer Abdou Sarr, who found the not-so-missing-link between traditional mbalax dance steps and hip-hop’s spinning and breaking. His physical movements were as hyperactive as the rapping, and he did a good job involving the audience, dancing with several members of the crowd, before the band succeeded in heightening the groove and turning the evening into an African hip-hop dance party, which happened midway through the second set.

What was perhaps most striking was the way in which every musician and vocalist and rapper seemingly was off on his own, playing or singing to an inner rhythm. Yet in the end it all interlocked to create a larger, organic structure. Whether it is in improvisational jazz or modern dance, this is the greatest gift that African folk tradition has given to American performance. That now the griot, or traditional troubadour storyteller, should incorporate the American innovation of rap and hip-hop, logically closes the circle.

Gokh-bi System returns to the area for a concert at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown on Jan. 25.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 28, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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