The a cappella quartet of Zap Mama (including the killer bassist/percussionist/singer Manou Gallo) started the evening in a mix of African song and storytelling that seemed to come out of the Soweto songbook. The harmonies were gorgeous and the rhythms intricate, but the sound was brittle and drained of its warmth and energy.
This issue seemed to dog the music for a good half of the night. Zap Mama's Marie Daulne and her singers continued with their set and were joined by keyboardist Will Rast and singer Amayo from Antibalas as the two ensembles slowly wove together and disentangled, leaving Antibalas on stage.
Antibalas continued on, with songs like "Dirty Money" and 'Ratcatcher' performed in their trademark Afro-beat groove showcasing some great soloing by trombonist Ray Mason and baritone saxophonist Martín Pena.
But the energy seemed static and flat, leaving one to wonder if it would ever take off.
The fuse was lit, though, when Zap Mama's vocals gradually re-entered while Daulne and Gallo chimed in with African wind instruments that sounded like flutes from the Iturbi Forest pygmy tribes. Antibalas locked into their flutes, and the whole ensemble then coalesced into African trance and the sound finally meshed.
The whole crew then launched into an uptempo Soca throwdown, and it was as if somebody threw the switch and the entire audience got out of their seats and started dancing.
The party groove continued to rule after that as both Daulne and singer Marcus Farrar from Antibalas got the audience singing and dancing along to such tunes as Rockwell's '80s pop hit "Somebody's Watching Me." It was cunningly configured as an anti-surveillance protest song.
The sound, the band and the audience were in the pocket after that, and Koerner hall finally turned into a dancehall.