Djembe and Mande Music/Review Section 
(last revision 10/18/99)
TITLE: Evolution
ARTIST: Les Ballets Africains
PLACE: Berkeley, California

Les Ballets Africains performed here in Berkeley, California this weekend. They are the National Ballet of Guinea, and they are wonderful. If you want ultra hot dancing, searing djembe playing, joyous singing and chanting, virtuoso balafon and sensual kora playing, then this group is your passport to a night of ecstatic entertainment. There were a few things that failed to please, however, such as the blocky, contrived men's group line dances, one even performed with Fred Astair-like walking canes; the fact that the accompanying musicians were partially behind curtains and barely visible to people sitting in the left side of the hall; and the tendency, in the group choreography, to pander to spectacle and entertainment at the expense of the music, such as when the dundunba player and drum were carried about on the shoulders of four dancers. But these are minor quibbles, and they certainly were overshadowed by everything else about this deep and exciting and wonderful performance.

The title of the evening's work is "Evolution," and I was surprised and deeply pleased to see the performance dealing with issues of social change in Africa, particularly with the intersection of tradition and the modern world. In one piece, three women dancers dressed in blue jeans, blouses, baseball caps and straightened hair wigs encounter a small group of traditionally dressed women. They dance competitively with (or against) each other, but flirtatiously with the traditionally dressed male flute player, who is providing the solo music for their dance. The flirtations become increasingly bold and competitive. Things finally degenerate to the point where all of the modern women are pulling the musician in one direction while the traditional women are all pulling him in the other. Of course, the music has now stopped. Fortunately, there is a happy ending, at least on stage. Unfortunately, Africa continues in her struggle to find her own happy ending to the dilemmas symbolized by this dance.

That was a fairly light piece compared to one dealing with female circumcision. Often called female genital mutilation or FGM by its numerous opponents and initiation or coming of age by people within the tradition, this controversial practice is common throughout much of Africa, including the performers' homeland of Guinea. Les Ballets Africains deals with this subject powerfully and directly. Several young, topless girls dance playfully and play rhythms on various djunjuns (yes, the women drum a lot in this performance!). Some older, traditionally dressed women enter and assert their authority over the girls by having them sit on the floor. One of the women holds up a small red object in her hand. It looked like a red, plastic dildo or perhaps a used tampon or possibly just a roll of bloody cloth. I couldn't tell from my seat in row Q. Whatever it actually was, it clearly symbolized the genital cutting phase of the girls' initiation. The women forcefully drag one of the girls off stage and moments later blood curdling screams are heard. The girl, who we had just seen dancing with joy, now returns to the stage slowly and painfully and sits back down with the others. The women then try to drag off two more of the girls, but the girls resist and kick the older women away. One of the elders angrily throws the red object on the ground near the newly circumcised girl. Suddenly, (and I never would have expected to see this in a traditional African ballet) a woman enters dressed completely in white modern Western clothing--white dress, low white heals, shear white stockings, white hat. She turns and we see a small red cross on the front of her dress. She is wearing a latex glove on one hand. She picks up the red object, angrily approaches the elder women and throws it on the ground at their feet. They immediately retreat and leave the stage. The nurse then provides comfort to the wounded child.

This very powerful piece received strong support from the audience. I, too, applaud Les Ballets Africains for their artistry and their courageous social stance. There are strong feelings in Africa about the juncture of the traditional and modern worlds, and even stronger feelings about cultural practices being interfered with by outsiders. I mentioned to a friend from Senegal that the government there had recently passed a law outlawing FGM. He said if the government tried to enforce that law people would be killed. Of course, people are being killed already: young girls, many of whom die of infections or blood loss after the clitoral artery is cut. A friend from Guinea told me he had seen many girls in his village bleed to death after initiation. Each person has to decide how he feels about criticizing the traditions and customs of another culture. For me, it's easy: the moral imperative is to mind my neighbors' business when children are being abused. But best of all is to have respected people from within the West African culture, such as Les Ballets Africains, make known their cultural dissent on a global stage. I hope that one day soon their message will be as well received in their homeland as it was this weekend in Berkeley.

Check out this performance, if you can. I don't know about the Guinea Ballet's remaining tour schedule, but there is contact information in the playbill: Email: RikkiStein@compuserve.com, or http://www.arc.co.uk/paam/.

Best regards, Brian Olson
 

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