When Seth Barden, the 24-year-old bass player in Greensboro's The Brand New Life, says that "music is the universal language," he's not just repeating niceties. During a semester spent studying in Spain as a senior in college, he learned that he could make friends through his skills as a musician, even when words failed.
"My Spanish was really bad," he says, "so I would just go to jam sessions and play music. Music really is the the great communicator."
It's a lesson Barden and his bandmates have tenaciously carried forward, recently incorporating a Senegalese griot into their ranks—talking drummer Mamadou Mbengue, who speaks more Wolof than English. He and Barden could exchange only a few words at first, but before long they were spending hours jamming at each other's homes. Now Mbengue, who comes from a 14th-century lineage of griots and has played with well-known mbalax pop bands in Senegal, is writing and arranging tunes for The Brand New Life. This weekend, the band will stoke a dance party at Nightlight to celebrate the unlikely musical collaborations and friendships that have sprung up in the Piedmont between American and Senegalese musicians.
The Brand New Life first met Mbengue last summer while playing together in the Piedmont Balafon Ensemble—balafons are West African marimbas with gourd resonators. Despite language barriers, they quickly incorporated Mbengue into their own jazz/ funk/ worldbeat collective.
"We dug Mamadou's playing. We already had a big band with eight players, including a drumset player and a percussionist who mostly plays congas. So Mamadou just fit really well into the group," Barden remembers. "We started hanging out with him and loved it. By July, he'd played almost every gig with us and learned our whole repertoire."
Soon after, another Senegalese musician crossed Barden's path—singer, kora player and djembe drummer Diali Cissokho. He once again put music to use as lingua franca.
"A friend of a friend had studied abroad in Senegal, where she met, fell in love and married a griot named Diali Cissokho. He just came over to my house in Carrboro one day," says Barden. "And [from Mamadou], I knew a couple phrases of Wolof, like 'How you doing?' And we just kind of hit it off and listened to some music."
That meeting eventually led to another collaboration. At last October's Shakori Hills Festival, Barden, Cissokho, drummer Austin McCall and Lizzy Ross Band guitarist Dylan Shrader performed together under the name Color of Flying.
"We learned a bunch of Diali's tunes for that gig, most of them were original, but still coming from the [African] tradition. We had a good time, and after Shakori I was thinking, 'We've got to get Mamadou and Diali together,'" says Barden.
A Ramadan gathering at Cissokho's home in Pittsboro gave him his chance. Beyond performing together, it's this warm hospitality and mutual openness that have proven most rewarding to Barden.
"What I've learned about Senegalese people through these two guys is, everybody is their family, everybody. When Mamadou first met my parents, he said, 'Oh, my mama, how are you? My dad, how are you?' Everybody is his brother or his cousin," says Barden. "There's just an immediate familiarity and an immediate bond and affection that I've had with both of these guys."
Cissokho is a grandson of kora legend Soundioulou Cissokho. He has deep roots in his native tradition, yet he hurried back from Senegal when he got Barden's invitation to play. It's a testimony to the strength of his newfound American ties.
"I was in Senegal, and my wife called me and said, 'Seth wants you to play a concert.' And I said, 'Well, if it's for Seth, then I'm going to cut everything short and come back in time to play together,'" Cissokho says, speaking Wolof through interpreter Bouna Ndiaye.
Cissokho's had his own unexpected gains from working with local musicians: "What I'm learning from them is not the craft of music, obviously, but the way they are trying to guide me in the right direction. They are helping me get established in the local music scene."
Building bridges and creating a common language through music is really nothing new for the band, whose roots go back to Barden's high school days. The group originally formed to play music with a friend with Down syndrome, Devin Foust.
"It turned into these therapeutic jam sessions on Sundays," Barden recalls. "I learned a lot about listening and about interacting with people and in music through Devin. Sometimes your mind's wandering and you can't focus; Devin, when he's playing music, he's just in the zone. So every time I would go over there, it helped me to get into that mind-set.
"I could listen better, I could play better, I could respond," he continues. "A lot of people passed through that jam session. The Brand New Life, besides Mamadou, are the people who stayed."
The Brand New Life may be singing in new languages these days, but it's still based on this founding principle—communicating through the Esperanto of pure, unbridled sound. On Friday, you won't need a phrase book to join in on the conversation.
"All these bands are going to have you dancing the whole night," says Barden. "So it's going to be a night of fun and friendship and cross-cultural interaction."
Contends Cissokho, "Wherever there's music, I'm there. My purpose is to spread the love. I'll be bringing that message."