Les R&B: Ballet, not blues
VAIL – At a club, on an album, from a circle in town square, you can hear the beats of a drum. With a masterful touch, a drum can sound like more than the thunderous barrage of a barbaric yawp. Drums take turns as melody makers and narrators, as Les Ballets Africains puts on two shows on Sunday at the Ford Amphitheater in Vail.The tradition was born in Guinea in 1952, combining African rhythms and instruments with dance, storytelling and acrobatics.”By the time this show finishes, you can bring the cable wire to the stage. It will light up the city,” said Les Ballets Africains Managing Director Mamoudou Conde. “The dance level has unbelievable power that is indescribable. The acrobatics have the message for younger generation that all our cultures are connected.”There are 35 members in the entire company for Les Ballets Africains, though only 18 members are on the current tour. Among the 18 touring members, there are six female performers and 12 males.”We have two very powerful male acrobats. The females drum, they dance and they sing,” said Conde. “You have a kora, which is a 21-string instrument, that will be (played) by these beautiful African women with an unbelievable grand boubou (a traditional garment). The dresses are colorful and you will never see (them) anywhere else. Nobody will be able to resist that particular scene.”A brief history In the midst of a fight against colonialism in 1952, poet and choreographer Keita Fodeba’s assemblage of an African ballet ripened in the Republic of Guinea.
“Les Ballets Africains is an icon in the continent of Africa. This company not only represents Guinea, but the entire continent,” said Conde.Fodeba arrived in Paris in 1948 as a choreographer and witnessed a misinterpretation of Africa in France.”He was really disappointed. He saw that Africa was judged by certain people negatively. He believed that he was born in a very powerful place with very powerful people and very beautiful rhythm and music,” said Conde.Fodeba chose to gather a grand ballet full of the finest dancers and musicians from many countries in Africa, including Congo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Chad.”When you see someone putting you down, you don’t fight physically. You decide to create something that can speak for itself,” said Conde. “Through his choreography, rhythm, dancing, drumming and the storytelling, he told the story about the positives of Africa without it coming from his own mouth.”Fodeba trained the students for nearly four years. By 1952, the company was performing.”The first show in Paris was very powerful, very well-received. It gave people a better understanding about Africa,” said Conde. “From that point, he gained support from certain people to be able to take this great culture and travel.”Based on Guinean tradition, the griot is the storyteller.
“They can create a music and rhythm, which you can see a storyline and understand without reading,” said Conde. “The major griot (performs for) the king and stops any problem that will come to the kingdom.”In the case of Les Ballets Africains, the griot told his stories through artistic choreography.”In each society, you have a special griot that belongs to that society. It’s more like a messenger. It’s more like a storyteller. It’s more like a peacemaker,” said Conde.The drumsThere are many different drums in Guinean tradition. Some are more common in the Rocky Mountain music scene, like the djembe and doundoun, which is the bass foundation.”The djembe is the lead. The entire show is led by the lead drummer,” said Conde. “Between the doundoun and the lead djembe you have three djembes for accompaniment, you have a kenkeni to help to harmonize the music and you also have a two other sangbans to support the drumming – to make it very powerful and to drive the drumming forward.”The balaphone, which originates from the kingdom of Soso, is a powerful wooden instrument with 21 or 23 keys played with two mallets.
“Together, this instrument and a Costa Rican instrument called the bote create a lot of energy,” said Conde.The company also uses one or two krins, which a melodic instrument of hollowed wood with many small openings.”Sangban comes in many different sizes. We put the women on that particular drum,” said Conde. “If you listen to jazz music, in the drumming you can find many different rhythms. You can find the blues, jazz and the reggae.”Les Ballet Africains plays twice on Sunday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. at Ford Amphitheater in Vail.Andrew Harley can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or at email@example.com.Vail, Colorado