‘Polyphonia’ delivers a musical journey around the world at Presidio Theatre

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“Polyphonia: Music of the World” turned the spotlight over to the various musicians accompanying at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. On Feb. 16 at the Presidio Theatre, World Arts West showcased multiple artists, including Omi Ashé, Del Mar Flamenco, Jackeline Rago & Venezuela 360° and the African Music and Dance Ensemble.

Omi Ashé, a traditional Afro-Cuban group, began the event with a spectacular batá drum and vocal performance. The drummers appeared onstage first, dressed in all-white to contrast with the sky blue of their drums. The drums’ resounding booms echoed in a mantra-like pattern. Three singers wearing yellow came onstage and sang in a call-and-response style, following the music’s natural rise and fall. Lilting calls added to the polyphony of the song as the singers broke off into their individual parts. The songs alluded to various Yoruba deities, with each melody flowing seamlessly into the next. In a traditional headpiece, lead singer Amikaeyla Gaston laughed lightly in certain sections of the second song to stylistically accompany the harmonies.“Yemayá,” a tribute to the goddess of water and maternity, featured fast rhythms and energetic, lively vocals. 

Next performing was Del Mar Flamenco, which included percussionist Marlon Aldana, vocalist and guitarist Jose “El Grillu” Blanco and guitarist David McLean. To start off, Blanco sang a heart-aching ballad with meltingly smooth guitar melodies and passionate, raspy vocals. Aldana joined in and responded to the vocalist as he sang, yelling out “Olé” and adding a unique call-and-response element. Blanco engaged in rhythmic clapping to complement the song’s beat, which emphasized the flamenco syncopation. As the music progressed, the stage filled with bold, powerful melodies. Sudden dynamic fluctuations and romantic guitar flourishes characterized the performance; the lyrics narrated folktales of love and longing. 

Japanese group San Francisco Awakko-Ren performed Awa Odori-style festival dance and music. The kane bell’s chiming set the pace as the hira-daiko and shime-daiko drums joined in, Yumiko Eshima leading the calls and chants. The atmosphere calmed as Carlo Chung performed a solo on a fue, a type of Japanese flute, before the ensemble delved into a lively performance. A beautifully executed shamisen solo rounded off the song. The last piece was distinctively rhythmic and unique, with two male dancers ending the song on an exhilarating note with their strong, quick movements.

Jackeline Rago & Venezuela 360º began its performance with the ebb and flow of the graceful cuatro, a Venezuelan stringed instrument. Yonathan Gavidia introduced various rhythmic layers through percussion instruments such as the culoepuya drum and maraca. The beat continuously shifted as Abelardo Boloño maintained a steady bass line. Anna Maria Violich-Olivier vocally accompanied Rago, and their two powerful voices complemented each other strikingly well. The performance was playful and engaging, conveying Venezuela’s Caribbean environment through natural sounds and honoring the Afro-Latinx tradition. For its final piece, Venezuela 360° invited the next group, the African Music and Dance Ensemble, to take part in a drum extravaganza. 

C.K Ladzekpo led the exuberant ensemble in a spirited and compelling performance of Ghanian musical traditions and revolutionary songs. Strong, youthful voices engaged in a call-and-response dialogue while booming, powerful drums rang through the auditorium. Rago reappeared onstage to accompany the ensemble with clacking wooden instruments and the maraca’s sandy tone. After the group introduced itself through its music, Ladzekpo paused to speak about the necessity of unity in Africa and to thank the crowd. During the group’s last piece, Ladzekpo invited the audience to get up and dance — for the finale, all of the performers reemerged for a celebration in the courtyard.

“Polyphonia” was a stunning commemoration of sound and music across the world. Each ensemble showcased the magnificence of its musical traditions and created a wonderful environment to get the audience grooving, providing an enticing sneak peek of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival to come.

Luna Khalil covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].