15 April 2017, The Cabana
We’re seated at The Cabana’s distinctive collaged tables for the first song of the night: a lulling, bluesy number. Sam Manzanza, resplendent in his dashiki, kufi hat and glowing white sneakers, is joined by a merry and eclectic band of men, the Afro Beat Quartet. Together through their music, they gently take the space and the audience by the hand and all feels well in the world.
The Cabana is dotted with a calm audience and a slow flow of people file through the entrance. Before the next number Sam Manzanza announces, “I don’t care how many of you are here, I’m going to give you GOOD music! I am going to take you to the moon and back!” and we know that we are with a musician who understands the value of his music, and that of his audience.
The venue fills up and by the third song, tables are shuffled away and chairs folded down so that the dance floor may grow with the crowd, and with the tempo. The whole audience is called on to dance – “because this is music for your feet!”. Before I know it, I am at the sweaty centre of the broadened dance floor, pliant and open-hearted to the rhythms and song. At one point I look around and every single person in the space is moving and smiling – from exuberant bouncing and wide, swishing limbs to closed-eyed swaying and shoulder shimmies.
Someone I met on the dancefloor, elated and beaming, said to me that they almost didn’t come to the gig because “this isn’t what I usually get in to”. Just as well, because Sam Manzanza is definitely far from “usual”. The promised journey to the moon is by way of Africa, Jamaica and the Deep South of America. A master percussionist and seasoned musician, Manzanza composes his own music from a range of influences and his lyrics are written in no less than four different languages.
In the careful and honest pastiche of Manzanza’s style, the stand out influences are ska, funk and reggae – but they are taken home and fed well on the rich beats of Africa then wrapped in Manzanza’s clear tone and expressive hooks. I see this night’s promised journey to the moon as having been just as well composed. From the swing and sway adagio of the first number to the extended and climactic final song – we were taken into a carefree orbit.
Sam Manzanza and the Afro Beat’s mission to spread positivity through their music was expertly achieved on this night. At the end of the show, the audience loudly implored the band to continue playing. I too wanted more, thinking “yes, I could definitely dance on”. The next day however, feeling the gentle ache of danced-out muscles, I felt grateful for having had the night finish at such a high point. Just enough ache to still feel the music, and an easy arrival back to Earth.