"What happens if no one shows up?"
That was the question I couldn't bring myself to ask Obuamah Laud Addy, lead singer and drummer of the AS220 Criss Cross Orchestra, or Liam Sullivan, the group's manager and guitarist.
But it was nearly an hour after last Thursday's show was supposed to start, and there were only four distinctly uncomfortable people in AS220's performance space, despite the fact that the Criss Cross Orchestra has performed in this space the second Thursday of every month for over a year. Half an hour may be acceptable lag time — but an hour is disconcerting.
Two band members changed their shirts. The backup percussionist's girlfriend, wedged behind a tiny table, crossed and recrossed her legs. The keyboardist's girlfriend mirrored her. Sullivan shifted his weight and frowned. Beers were bought, downed and refilled. Trumpet and French horn player Gerard Heroux, a former Brown adjunct professor of music, made anxious small talk. Shirts were changed again.
I've never been to a show without an audience. What will they do, I wondered, if another 30 minutes pass without anyone coming through the door? Pack up and go home? Addy was something of a child star in his home country of Ghana, has toured with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and has played at two presidential inaugurations. Was he regretting moving to Rhode Island — which he said he did for "the quiet and the beaches"?
Arrayed nervously on the stage, the Criss Cross Orchestra looked more like a group of tired men in various stages of mid-life crises than anything else. All of its members, except for Addy, have day jobs. Seven of the nine official members of the orchestra were at Thursday's performance, while the other two had family commitments. I had to wonder if this orchestra was doomed from the start. Providence is not exactly a Mecca for world music, and the orchestra's Afro-reggae-highlife-jazz fusion isn't comparable to anything that has come out of the city before. And talking with Addy — who founded the group in 2010 with the help of AS220 artistic director Bert Crenca — I got the feeling that he is a man who has more vision than sense.
"When I founded (the orchestra)," he said, "I wanted a group that doesn't discriminate and is about learning everything that is necessary." He spoke of a major recording session in the band's future — though Sullivan had never heard about it. He mentioned a European tour — again, everyone in the band has a day job. And he promoted an upcoming documentary he is directing — but for which he has no crew — about "the variety of uses for drum rhythms." He compared the Criss Cross Orchestra to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Every Afro-fusion band since before Fela Kuti was born has compared themselves to Fela Kuti.
Addy winks a lot when he talks.
But the guy is inescapably charming. "Paul!" he called to bass guitarist Paul Caraher in the middle of our interview. "That woman is naked! Put a skirt on her!" Caraher grinned guiltily and fumbled to tie a skirt around the drum.
Addy has a wide, gap-toothed smile and an infectious laugh. He explained that the name of the band comes from the phrase "futu futu," which in Ghana means "criss cross" but has connotations of "having fun, mixing cultures without a lot of pressure." All that winking suggested that he had a secret plot — maybe a plan to trick the rest of the band into thinking that no one was coming to the show and then — surprise!
At the stroke of 9:30 p.m., exactly one hour after the Criss Cross Orchestra was slated to perform, an entire extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, toddlers — waltzed through the door.
Addy laughed like that was the plan all along. The orchestra started to play. They sound a lot like Fela Kuti.