The music of singer-guitarist Yoro Ndiaye, whose debut U.S. tour reached the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Friday evening, has been called "Senegal folk'' and "acoustic mbalax.'' The latter tag refers to the West African rhythm associated with world-music star Youssou N'Dour, one of Ndiaye's patrons, and both terms highlight Ndiaye's penchant for easygoing tunes and unplugged instruments. Those folky elements were evident at Friday's performance, but so were many others, some of them considerably more forceful.
The dreadlocked Ndiaye performed with a five-man band, Le Yoon Wi ("The Way''), and it wasn't just the matching gray tunics and trousers that marked all six musicians as a single unit. The group played six songs, each averaging about nine minutes, and switched tempos and styles with the grace only a well-practiced ensemble can achieve. While the vocal melodies were mostly gentle, Ndiaye sometimes reached for piercing high notes that proved him a worthy pupil of N'Dour's delivery. The instrumental passages allowed all the musicians to solo, with no more emphasis on such traditional instruments as balafon (a wooden-keyed xylophone) and congas than electric guitar and bass.
Such songs as "Africa'' and "Xarit'' were sung mostly in Wolof, with snatches of French and English. The music roved more widely, from desert blues to jazz-rock to a drum solo that (briefly) emulated such British bashers as Keith Moon and John Bonham. The two guitarists employed a bright, chiming tone that made the group sound like an all-percussion orchestra, but Ndiaye sometimes switched to reggae's chunky strum, providing both rhythmic and tonal contrast. The band's style was so wide-ranging that a klezmer interlude wouldn't have come as a great surprise.
While Ndiaye did some exuberant high-stepping, few in the audience were inspired to dance. The venue's high-ceilinged grandeur no doubt discouraged some potential hoofers, but the music itself was a bit intimidating. With their shifting cadences and avoidance of vocal refrains, Ndiaye's songs lacked the easily grasped hooks of Western pop. Though tracking the group's musical permutations was challenging, it was rewarding.