Pianist Hiromi once told me that playing an outdoor concert is very challenging, for the audience might not like you and just walk away. There are other issues that come into play, especially the heat, which can be almost unbearable in mid-afternoon Central Park.
None of these were obstacles for Panjea, who delivered a near-flawless set during the first weekend of Central Park Summerstage’s 2006 season. Led by Chris Berry, who played percussion and thumb piano, the band opened with a reggae-tinged theme reminiscent of Bob Marley. Trumpeter Dan Sears stole the show for a few moments by channeling Arturo Sandoval in his own way.
The Jamaican influence in Berry's music is undeniable, and he doesn't attempt to hide it. Nonetheless, he is not one to play songs that sound the same – he quickly switched gears and played a funk-based theme with a laid-back feel. Halfway through, guitar player Zivanai Masango added a solo, but the constraints of the melody did not allow him to show his chops completely.
One of the best moments of the show was "Hold On," a tune with African elements that quickly reminded me of Salif Keita. Here Masango played more freely, adding rich guitar riffs throughout the song. The other members in the band seemed to reach their comfort zones in this song, something that was obviously felt by the audience, who were there mostly to see the evening's main attraction, Algerian singer Takfarinas.
Panjea is quite a band – formed by musicians from various corners of the world, their sound easily gels even though the influences are varied. On their album, Dancemakers (Wrasse), there is the presence of reggae legends Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, but the live band doesn't miss them at all. I just feel that Berry needs to find his own voice when performing reggae, instead of sounding like a Caucasian Bob Marley. Otherwise, the band is very enjoyable with its catchy melodies and lively beat.