May 2007

Redsan with Ladder Ranks and Fulani Band
Presented by Zink Productions
May 20, 2007 Lula Lounge Toronto
A Royally Late and Righteous Night with the King of East African Dancehall
by Sebastian Cook
Where else in the world could a room be packed on three consecutive nights for an avant-garde/jazz-funk/indie rock triple bill, a Cuban salsa celebration and an East African dancehall party? Kenyan dancehall sensation Redsan’s ultra-late night show in front of one of the most passionate crowds you will ever find was truly a fitting way to cap off Lulaworld 2007 and celebrate five years of the very best music on earth at Lula Lounge.

Around 10 pm, the seats at Lula were full, but there wasn’t a soul to be found on the dancefloor. About a half hour later, Toronto’s only East African fusion band Fulani took the stage. Their music is a compelling hybrid of East African roots/blues/folk, Afrobeat, jazz-funk, dancehall, reggae and African calypso, with a bit of 50s American rock n’ roll thrown in for good measure which is where their set started. The drummer leads the band; his stripped-down kit with electronic effects and the crunching guitar are what carry the Fulani vibe. They were a bit loose and sloppy at first, but once they hit their stride Fulani’s sound was a treat to hear, an announcement of a band with a very interesting future.

After their set finished, a rotation of DJs tested the limits of the Lula PA system’s bottom end with some deliciously down-and-dirty African dancehall reggae grooves. At about 11 pm, the room started to surge both in terms of crowd numbers and the intensity of anticipation. Shortly thereafter, I was called upon to be Redsan’s club-entry security detail; apparently there was no chance of Redsan making his way through the crowd of women to the stage without major incident. And so I waited. And grooved. And soaked in an atmosphere unlike any I had experienced at a live music event in Toronto before.

The promoters in the foyer frantically worked their cellphones, assuring us repeatedly that Redsan was just minutes away. Finally, he and his DJ rolled up to the club in a black Hummer H2 around 12:45, which they navigated by the skin of their teeth through Lula’s extremely narrow, brick-bounded alleyway. Redsan stepped out and we introduced ourselves; he was surprisingly tall for a Kenyan, with cornrows flowing out from under a white du-rag, a brilliant and mischievous grin, and in general an air of someone who knows he owns his universe and is having the time of his life. He and his DJ had a quick discussion about their set, borrowing my pen to scroll down notes on the hood of the Hummer. They then headed into the club, to the relative backstage serenity.

The Technicolor-dreadlocked Ladder Ranks set the table with a couple of blistering Afro-Jamaican jungle dancehall numbers — vocally reminiscent of Beenie Man or Buju Banton. There wasn’t nearly enough bass from the DJ decks to really max out the vibe, but still a sound that I appreciated hearing live again having not attended a dancehall party in several years.

Finally, it was time for Redsan to tear the roof off. At the time he took the stage, Lula was dancefloor-full, as one would find it on a typical Friday or Saturday night. Suddenly, the crowd of about 225 surged forward, jam-packing the centre of the floor and also the dining areas to the sides; there wasn’t a single person seated in the whole crowd.

As soon as his flow started it was immediately obvious why he is considered to be “The King of East African Dancehall”. On stage, he projects himself with the air of young royalty, commanding the crowd yet also making them feel welcome. His lyrics are astoundingly poignant messages of unity, celebration and love delivered at warp speed yet still clear as an African sky; quite frankly a welcome contrast to the aggressive and often violent and misogynist lyrics that have corrupted the timeless Jamaican dancehall sound. Every song is prefaced in a way that jacks up the audience’s anticipation to a fever pitch, followed by a call to the effect of “Deejay, bring it”. While the quality of the vocals themselves is never the essence of dancehall, one can tell that Redsan is well-versed in the art of song; his deep, tribal bass pours out in intense bursts, with his improvised storytelling as the bridge between. I can certainly envision some American hiphop artists listening to Redsan with collaborative ears burning — indeed.

About a half-hour into his set, Redsan began an impromptu African Nations’ Cup (for all you soccer lovers out there) of dancehall. “Kenya”, “Uganda”, “Tanzania”, “Burundi”, “Somalia”, “Ghana”, he would call out, as if to put the good-natured weight of a nation on each contestant’s shoulders; obviously, there was a bias towards his own nation, and Kenya was declared the winner. If Redsan has a future in politics, I suddenly like Africa’s chances of emerging to its rightful place a whole lot more.

Ladder Ranks returned to the stage for one absolutely thumping number with Redsan. Then came a final volley from the King (and a disappointingly muted crowd reaction given what I expected might happen at the close of the show) and he was off backstage into the night.

It isn’t often that one witnesses a Sunday night concert end at 2:30 am. And I found myself thinking on the way home how nice it would be if music and culture here was as free from the constructs and restrictions of time and musicological navel-gazing as it is in Africa.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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