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Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010

Burkina Electric, Lukas Ligeti’s Electronic Africa

Present Music’s restless journey

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Being the first ever electronica band from Burkina Faso, the landlocked African nation formerly known as Upper Volta, is an interesting accomplishment. More intriguing, however, is the overall career of the group’s co-founder and percussionist, Lukas Ligeti. The son of one of the mid-20th century’s singular composers, Gyorgi Ligeti (author of the spooky music from 2001: A SpaceOdyssey), the younger Ligeti has found his own path in contemporary classical music. He also finds time for his band, Burkina Electric, a convergence of Africa with contemporary electro-funk. It’s music that can easily fill dance floors with the gentle sway of its fluid rhythms. Dancers are part of the ensemble, their choreography similarly blending tradition and experimentation.

Ligeti and Burkina Electric will be the guests of Milwaukee’s contemporary music ensemble and presenter, Present Music, at a Feb. 6 Turner Hall Ballroom concert. Along with a performance by Burkina Electric, the 7:30 p.m. show will include Present Music performing Ligeti’s composition for strings, Moving Houses, plus a pair of 1980s-era Philip Glass pieces and the world premiere of Caroline Mallonee’s Reaction.

While acknowledging a debt to his distinguished father, Ligeti was drawn in directions that led far away from European modernism. Like many younger composers, he feels no obligation to stick to any one thing; rather, his track record is one of restless exploration into jazz, rock, electronics and the music of Africa. In 1998 he moved to New York and became part of the “downtown scene” of musicians whose taste for the avant-garde melds into the sonic language of rock. Six years later he founded Burkina Electric with Mai Lingani, whose sharp, penetrating vocals dominate the band along with Ligeti’s marimba lumina, a MIDI percussion synthesizer in the key of sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s an orchestral instrument—a marimba with electronics associated with it,” Present Music Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim says of Ligeti’s signature instrument. “It runs from string sounds to electronic sounds to an actual marimba. It’s mind blowing when he does it live.”

Ligeti has explained that his embrace of the marimba lumina, which is armed with an arsenal of sampled sounds, came from his boredom in watching mouse-clicking musicians with laptops on stage. He wanted an instrument that looked more dynamic—that audiences could engage with visually as well as sonically.

“It’s the old and the new coming together,” Stalheim continues. “We know all about Fela [Kuti]. Burkina Electric adds the dimension of a new music composer to Afro-pop. You might find yourself in an ethereal soundscape all of a sudden! It’s an adventure beyond pop music, but Burkina Electric is a kick-ass Afro-pop band.”

A lot of “world beat” is an artificial grafting of disparate elements, a cold fusion. For Stalheim, Burkina Electric’s music “sounds very natural. It represents the new world of young composers in the pop and academic worlds.”

Representing another side of his many interests, Ligeti’s Moving Houses is a string quartet originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The music begins with simple, moody themes and develops into a complex web of references to everything from “Eleanor Rigby” to African rhythm and Gypsy fiddling.

In the eclectic realm of Saturday’s concert program, the pair of Glass pieces, with elegantly spinning wheels of minimalism, represents familiarity, the grounding in an already well-established tradition of postmodernism. The final composer on the bill, Mallonee, will be familiar to Present Music fans. Her composition for three musicians playing beer bottles, arranged around the theme of the old Milwaukee favorite “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” was a hit when performed by Present Music in 2008.

The new work by Mallonee to be unveiled Saturday has nothing to do with beer, Africa or electronica. Written for violin, viola, cello, bass, tenor saxophone, clarinet, percussion and piano, “it’s rhythmically intricate, even though the beat is steady,” Stalheim says. “The musicians play their notes in less obvious places.”

It sounds challenging and is part of the mélange of seriousness and fun that has long marked Present Music’s concerts.

For tickets and information, visit www.presentmusic.org or www.pabsttheater.org, or call Present Music at 271-0711 or the Pabst Theater box office at 286-3205.