A night in Gent, with Manu DiBango (by Samm Bennett)
Belgium, 1983: I was living in Brussels at that time, doing a lot of solo percussion gigs around Belgium. Played lots of towns, from bigger ones like Antwerp and Ghent, to tiny little burgs so small that my friends and acquaintances in Brussels had never heard of them. I guess I made something of a name for myself in Belgium during those days, cause there was no shortage of gigs for this young expat American and his strange little drum kit. An appearance on a Belgian children's TV show called Lollipop probably helped in that regard, as did a solo gig at the giant North Sea Jazz Festival in nearby den Haag, Holland. It so happened that a promoter who was booking some gigs in Belgium for African saxophonist and bandleader Manu Dibango had heard me somewhere and got in touch to ask me to do a solo set opening for DiBango and his band at the Vooruit in Ghent. That was a pretty exciting prospect for me, and very gratifying, since so much of what I was doing musically in those days was a reflection of my keen interest in African rhythm. It felt like some kind of anointment.
I was at the theater the day of the show for soundcheck. My check was just finished, and my drum kit (an idiosyncratic jerry-rigged assemblage of about 7 or 8 little tuned drums, plus a couple of bass drums and little cymbals and bells) was still set up. It was a pretty compact kit, and seemed even smaller, I suppose, sitting there in the middle of that big theater stage. Manu DiBango's wife and manager (French, I believe), had just arrived at the venue, and stepped up onto the stage. I was just close enough, just offstage in the wings, to overhear her say to someone (the local organizer, I believe), in a voice dripping with disdain: "who's going to play that, a midget"? Haha! Wonderful, right? Charming woman, no doubt...
Before the show I briefly met DiBango, who was friendly and polite, and I spent a little while chatting with his percussionist, who mostly played conga, and seemed interested in my weird drumset. Just before showtime, I was in my dressing room, one flight down from the stage. I began to hear a thunderous pulse, vibrating the ceiling. It was the sound of the crowd (a packed house!) stomping and clapping in unison in the theater just above. The stage director opened my dressing room door and told me it was time to go on. As I came up the stairs and approached the stage, I could hear that the crowd was not just stomping and clapping, but were chanting, as well. Their chant? SAMM BENNETT! SAMM BENNETT! Haha! It was amazing, it was like I was some kind of rock star or something! It was a really nice feeling, but not for the obvious reason of ego stroking as you might imagine. It was more a warm and funny (haha funny) feeling because I knew that most of those folks were just having fun with it. What I mean is, that crowd was under no illusion that they were calling out for some star or something. It was just a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink gesture, on a grand scale. It felt as if the audience and I were all in on a friendly joke or something. Anyway, that's how I interpreted it.
So I did my set, the crowd was wildly enthusiastic and noisily appreciative (a real party atmosphere in the place that night), and when I came offstage, Manu DiBango, Mr. Soul Makossa himself, walked right up to me and asked me to join his band as guest member that night! Now THAT was thrilling! Wow! Played with his band that night, and the next night as well, at their Brussels show. Should you ever read this, Mr. DiBango, I'd like to express my gratitude to you!
Also, to the photographer who kindly took the shots that appear above and later sent them to me. Sorry to say I've long forgotten your name, but you were very kind to actually adjust your lens to focus on me for a couple of shots!