Rhythm Safari – review

April 27, 2010 by Lloyd Bradford Syke
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Rhythm Safari is currently being staged at the Bondi Pavilion, Sydney.

BEAT UP IN BONDI.

Rhythm Safari isn’t a safe sex tour for Catholics, but a transcontinental percussive odyssey, traversing Africa, Spain, Asia, the Caribbean and Brazil. It is, in essence, Sibo Bangoura’s story, albeit a loosely-woven narrative imbued with a good eal of poetic licence. Sibo is a master drummer, from Guinea, who’s been playing djembe and other things that go bang since the age of nine. Given his proficiency, perhaps that means nine months. Anyway, he’s responded to the call of his ancestors, listened to his heart, and crossed all the above borders, soaking up cultures and beats along the way. Now he’s landed in Australia, we can call him our own. Sure, he still travels to Africa regularly, and teaches all over the planet, but he’s here to stay. Perhaps he’s already absorbed some indigenous culture since residing in this wide, brown land, as the opening sequence of the show, though African, reflects uncanny similarities to Aboriginal musical traditions.

There is potent imagery projected on a screen, gyrating African and South American dance grooves, reggae, Arabic influences, Taiko, slick & sleek contemporary soul, juggling, conducting; and much more. There are drums and percussion instruments of many kinds. Including on every seat of the Bondi Pavilion, along with a ‘tuned’ plastic tube. These are put to good use by the audience, directed by the performers. (It reminded me of Frank Zappa conducting applause on the Don Lane Show, but that’s another story and, besides, my vintage is showing.) It’s the participatory percussive democracy that’s the real focus of the show. People of all ages can hardly leave their toys alone and are clearly liberated and unburdened by the experience, in a way white people rarely are. if you’ve just had a bad day at work, a fight with your spouse, or have pent-up road rage, this is going to be therapeutic. If you’re looking to unwind, let go, celebrate, unleash, or express, this is going to work a treat. You’ll beat things, clap and sing. No, really, you will. It’s fun to make noise.

The visionary creators of this gangbang are Hilton Rosenthal, Lance & Maxine Radus. There’s an interesting backstory as to how they met and joined forces, but a rather lengthy one to go into right here and now.

Rosenthal is a music business veteran, having run a major label, as well as his own independent one, in South Africa. He might’ve been here a baker’s dozen years, but before that he worked as a producer and publisher in LA. As a result, his name-dropping can boast more than most: Paul Simon; Carole King; Foreigner. Maxine Radus resume reads like  that of a hybrid hippy intellectual: drama; counselling; drum circles. Colourful! Lance is the facilitator, team-builder and all-round make-it-happen man, who also happens to have a profound knowledge of indigenous music. It was his interactive drumming experiments that inspired the whole shebang. Between the three of them they’ve created something fresh, new and invigorating: around ninety minutes of sweat and passion. They made a good decision in bringing to bear the international directorial experience of Moira Blumenthal, who’s ensured seamless segues, impeccable timing and a very theatrical presentation. Without her, it wouldn’t really be a show; just a big beat-up.

One of the outstanding features of the show, apart from colourful costumes, is the original music, presided over by MD, Paul Chenard. An internationally-renowned saxophonist and bassist, he’s been here as long as Rosenthal, but hails from Montreal. Mlungisi Mthetwa comes from Durban, of Zulu heritage, but steeped in gospel. He’s toured Europe and the US with Miriam Makeba, no less. He might’ve first come to Australia as an original cast member of the Lion King, in 2003 but, with Rhythm Safari he’s returned to his roots. His considerable voice has a characteristic redolent of old timber; a smoky, inveigling warmth. Fantine Pritoula. Now there’s a captivating background. Born in Moscow. Russian father. Dominican mother. It’s produced a young woman who moves like she was born to dance and who could probably sing many of the current crop of R ‘n’ B pretenders off the stage. Deva Permana is altogether different. He was learning gamelan at 12.  From kendang, which he struck professionally by the age of 17, he ‘graduated’ to Western drums. Rob Edwards is a soul singer in his own right, who started as a child prodigy, on keyboards and guitar. His influences tend to out themselves in his playing: the funkified sound of Stevie Wonder and K.C. Nick Fury doesn’t necessarily have the exotic birthright the others do, but he’s a compelling, characterful presence; a silent narrator, of sorts.

So, it’s a diverse bunch, just as it should be, and very Bondi. In practice, the narrative thread is a relative tenuous one,  serving to draw the journey together, affording a beginning, middle and end. The songs are of a very high standard, as is the musicianship. There were moments when things weren’t quite as tight as a drum, but they were few, and forgivable. The rightful emphasis is on fun and it’s surprising how coordinated a disparate group of beachside bums on seats can be on an unreasonably, unseasonably balmy Tuesday night. If you want midweek spiritual upliftment, the Bondi pavlova is the place to be. No, you don’t have to be RC to partake of the rhythm method.

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