Malian musician Cheick Hamala Diabate grinned as he looked over the packed room on the second floor of the Grove on Chapel Street. “Maybe I’ll move here to Connecticut,” he said. “I like everyone here.”
The favor was returned as the room cheered back — a full house on Friday to greet Diabate and opener 75 Dollar Bill for the first show booked by the State House — even before the venue has properly opened.
75 Dollar Bill — a Brooklyn-based duo consisting of New Haven-born Che Chen on guitar and percussion and Rick Brown on percussion and homemade horns — started off with a hypnotic piece tinged with the sounds of North Africa that gave a sense of why the band was a good pairing with Diabate. The two musicians drew the crowd in with the expansiveness of their groove, then got the audience to come along with them through experiments that found Chen playing a portable radio through the pickup of his guitar while Brown drew multiple simultaneous pitches out of his horns. They then returned to the North African sound they began with, ending with a long jam on “I’m Not Trying to Wake Up,” off their latest release, Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock.
“This is the first time we’ve played in New Haven, and there you have it,” Brown said at the beginning of 75 Dollar Bill’s set. The applause that greeted Chen and Brown at the end of their set suggested it may not be the last.
“I am so happy to be here,” Diabate said at the very beginning of his set — a sentiment that defined the joyous performance that followed as he led a supple backing band of musicians through a series of emotional and utterly danceable songs. He sang with a high clear voice befitting the griot tradition he comes from, but truly shone on both the guitar and the ngoni, the ancestor and now cousin to the American banjo. The crowd, already warmed from 75 Dollar Bill, began dancing and cheering — particularly when led by one of the percussionists, who left her drums behind to stand before the band and show the audience the right steps. They caught on fast, and soon were dancing with her.
Diabete himself kept the energy high by passing the solos around, particularly to guitarist Rob Colton, whom he called affectionately “Rob Colton Diabate.” When taking a long guitar solo, he wandered into the audience to delight and seemingly play to everyone individually in turn.
The music took a deep plunge into the connection between Malian and American music when Diabate switched to the ngoni. “We’re going to play a blues for you, okay?” he said. He brought the volume down. The band, which had been rocking it, had to rein it in. Then they let the rhythm grow back up until it was wide and swinging. By then the room was sweltering and it was getting late, but nobody showed any signs of leaving.
“Should I play more?” Diabate said at the end. He held up one finger, two fingers, three fingers. “One more!” someone shouted. “Two more!” shouted someone else.
“If I play one more, you need to dance like Africans,” Diabate said. A laugh rippled through the crowd. “Okay,” Diabate said, “let’s go from Mali to Senegal.”
The band launched into an uptempo, irresistible number, and everyone in the audience did their best with Diabate’s command. Hips swayed. Feet moved. Hands waved in the air. Diabate stated clapping out a rhythm, the room clapped with him, and the beat went on.
Click here for a listing of the State House’s upcoming shows, ranging from local and national to international acts.