Zansa kicks off big summer plans at Mountain Sports Festival
Asheville Afropop band Zansa’s name comes from a Nouchi slang word from Ivory Coast meaning “combination” or “blend.” True to that moniker, Adama Dembele (lead vocals and djembe), Patrick Fitzsimons (guitar), Sean Mason (drum set), Ryan Reardon (bass) and Matt Williams (acoustic and electric violins and electric guitar) have placed a greater emphasis this year on mixing with some of West Africa’s finest performers, going so far as to bring a few of them to Western North Carolina.
Zansa’s chief current collaboration is with dancer Barakissa Coulibaly, Dembele’s friend from their shared homeland. She’ll be joining the local group, which plays the opening night of the Mountain Sports Festival (Friday, May 23).
The band helped Coulibaly in the lengthy process of extending her U.S. visa. They brought her to Asheville to teach and perform, beginning with Zansa’s April 18 show at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall alongside fellow dancer Nadirah Rahman. “[Barakissa] really takes the show to a new level,” Reardon says. “Zansa’s music is inspired in part by traditional West African music, which is thoroughly intertwined with dance. Each drum rhythm and song have specific dances to match, so Barakissa already knew a lot of our music even before arriving in Asheville.” Drawing on her 24-year professional dance career, which has included instructional opportunities in nearly 20 countries, Coulibaly was able to quickly put together choreography to Zansa’s tunes.
Invigorated by the partnership, Reardon and his bandmates are hoping to keep Coulibaly in Asheville as long as possible. To help with that, the group is throwing a “soumu” (a West African celebration of music, dance, food and culture) for her on Thursday, June 5, at The Orange Peel. (They had a similar party for Dembele in February 2012 to help him raise funds to obtain his green card.)
Coulibaly, however, isn’t the only Ivorian artist in town. Moussa Kone has been playing guitar with Zansa as well as with Dembele, Fitzsimmons and a revolving cast of musicians in the acoustic side project Mande Foly. Reardon describes the collective as “a much looser group than Zansa” and “more of an African jam session,” featuring styles from Mali and Burkina Faso, the home of frequent member Arouna Diarra.
Moussa, says Reardon, “plays a very unique style of fingerpicking. It’s like his fingers smack the strings rather than pluck them, but he’s still nuanced at the same time. Catch him while you can: We’re not sure how long he’ll be able to stay here, either. Not to get political, but U.S. immigration is tough these days. It’s just a fact.”
Fortunately, Dembele didn’t encounter such trouble when he traveled to Ivory Coast in February. While there, he played at the Market for African Performing Arts festival, the first since 2007 due to fighting under the Gbagbo regime. Now that the country is at peace under President Alassane Ouattara, the festival was able to return.
In Dembele’s absence, Zansa didn’t rehearse much, but the musicians did complete the video for their song “Jahili,” which premiered at Music Video Asheville in April. A “jahili” is someone or something that divides people, and in the song Dembele sings in Bambara, “It is not good to be a jahili, my friend.”
In the video, local actor Tj Lee portrays the jahili, creeping into the mindset of lovers and friends to cause strife. At a certain point, the jahili reveals his true self, and the witnesses realize that once people recognize the things in their lives that cause conflict, those obstacles may be overcome. “It sounds like a serious subject, and it is, but the video turned out pretty fun in the end,” says Reardon. “We had a big cast of friends and fans who came out one day for the crowd scenes. Don’t get me wrong: Our actors were great, but our extras took it up a notch.”
Zansa plans to harness that energy during festival season, beginning with the three-day Mountain Sports Festival at Carrier Park. Coulibaly will be there, as will Kone if his immigration issues are ironed out in time. Regardless of who’s onstage, it promises to be a performance that takes full advantage of the space, with a little help from instruments that aren’t often used indoors. “I’ve found that outdoor shows require a bit more heft,” says Reardon. “The sound can easily escape with no walls to hold it in, so we hope to be able to bring the big drums.”