Another first for Guinea

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Ballet National de Keita Fodeba or Les Ballets Africains – Les Amazones de l’orchestra Feminin de la Gendarmerie Nationale – Nimbaya! The Women’s Drum & Dance Company of Guinea.

Each of these three companies originated from the country of Guinea in West Africa. The Guinea Ballet or Les Ballets Africains was the first African dance company to come to the United States in 1959. As we know music and dance is an oral tradition that permeates the continent of Africa from coast to coast. As an oral tradition these dances are usually created in villages and hamlets of a particular country and do not move from within their borders because they would not be understood by a neighboring country because the music is based upon the spoken language of the people. The sheer number of different languages spoken on the continent hobbles the fluid transfer of the music and dance of African nations across different borders.
As an oral tradition there was no system in place to write these different music and dances so they were held hostage to their own circumstances. The music and dance of Africa is passed from one generation to the next by a mouth to ear process. Any society that is totally dependent upon oral communication for the transmission of its culture between generations is doomed to failure because of the breakdown of the human memory over the course of time and outside interpretation.
During the late forties and early fifties a number of French speaking Africans went to France in pursuit of a higher education that could not be obtained in their indigenous country. Keita Fodeba, a Mandinka bard came to France during this time. He would seek out Maurice Sonar Senghor, nephew of the future president of Senegal. Both men were students of the theater. Sonar Senghor and his group Les Siccos were featured entertainment in the nightclub, Rose Rouge Café. The two would meet and become the best of friends. They realized that any theatrical act that was based on the lingua franca of their countries was extremely limited on the international scene. Their greatest collaboration came when they decided to create a dance company. They knew that the viewing audience would be more interested in the movement and pulsating drum beats because it was not necessary to fully comprehend the lingua franca of the language of the instruments to appreciate music and dance in a theatrical setting. Thus the concept of a national dance company was conceived in 1952. They would work night and day creating movement for the company. Success came in 1953 when Les Ballets National du Keita Fodeba debuted at the Etoile Theater on the same marquee as Ives Montand, a popular French entertainer.
The second group created by Keita Fodeba was an all female group, named Les Amazones de l’orchestra Feminin de la Gendarmerie Nationale. It was essentially a jazz orchestra. Les Amazones was the first all female group from Guinea. I believe this group performed in New York in the seventies. It seems that this was an attempt to introduce a new element of African culture to the western world that was hungry for greater contact with African culture. The easiest route was through African music and dance ensembles. Sorry to state although the all female group was proficient in music and performed well, they did not appeal to the viewing audience because their platform was not African but jazz. One has to say that the timing to introduce this type of group from Africa was off, as the viewing public was clamoring for the rich pulsating rhythms of drums and traditional dances. It was the seventies when the audiences had experienced the National Ballet of Senegal the company that revolutionized the way African dance was taught and performed in the states. The National Dance Company of Senegal set the standard for all other African companies to emulate. The Senegalese dance company reigned supreme throughout the seventies and eighties.

Nimbaya, the all female music and dance ensemble is the third first for Guinea. This group features women playing the Djembe drums. The Djembe drum is essentially an instrument dominated by men. Throughout Africa, the role of women was primarily that of a dancer and few women drummed. With the exception of the Oba wives of Nigeria, the Senufo women, pictured in many of the older accounts of drumming, playing drums that stand three feet tall, and women of Niger who play the Tinde, are accountings I have come across in my research in drumming in Africa.
Nimbaya takes its name from the Nimba or D’mba mask of the Baga people of Guinea. The mask represents mother of fertility, protector of pregnant women and is used in all agriculture ceremonies. The Nimba mask is worn on the shoulders of a man who is clothed in a long blanketed costume with raffia projections.
You will notice that Djembe drums are not used in the performance of the Nimba mask.

Mamodou Conde of Les Ballets Africains created Nimbaya in 1998. Nimbaya would garner energy from the popularity that the Djembe drum has gained since 1971 when it usurped the Congo drum as the drum of instant African recognition. As we all know drumming is dominated by men particularly drums that stand three feet tall. The main role of girls and women in Africa was to dance to the spirited playing of male drummers.
Speaking as a female elder who has been involved in African drumming for more than five decades, I can confirm that many women had to learn to play the drum by ear, or by rote, the repeated hearing of the sounds. Under no circumstances did a woman play the Djembe drum. Women were forbidden to touch the Djembe drum. Nimbaya made its first New York appearance at Symphony Space in a two-day program March 23-24.
The performance that Nimbaya presented had a two-fold purpose to entertain and to inform the audience of the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation, a serious problem that is widespread throughout the continent of Africa. Thus Nimbaya opened their program with the selection Ato Ayendimina (Stop You are Hurting Me!) It was essentially a dramatic skit accompanied by the music of a Balafon player and singing. The company members enacted the plight of young girls as they are brought, by an elder woman who at times may be the grandmother, mother or aunt of the young initiate, to the site where the mutilation will take place. As the skit progresses, the audience learns that many of the young initiates are reluctant to go through with the process. The audience also learns that the elder who performs the procedure uses a knife that is stained with the blood of all the members of the village. This procedure is performed under less than sanitary conditions and often leads to scarring in the genital area and sometimes death. As the scene progresses, one of the initiates who has undergone the procedure becomes ill and a medical doctor comes to her aid to revive her. Although the practice of FGM has been outlawed in a number of countries, it is still practiced in numerous villages as a cultural tradition that all girls must undergo. They believe that this procedure will prevent the young girl from becoming promiscuous and remain a virgin until marriage. In the end the elder promises to cease conducting the procedure.
The next selection was Bambo, a solo Balafon selection. The word’Balafon‘literally means’player of wood. « Fon » is translated as’player of’ and Bala means’wood’ in the Mandinka language. This instrument is known as a xylophone in the diaspora. Xylophone can be translated as the sound of wood.’Xylo’ wood and’phone’ sound of. The xylophone comes in many sizes and shapes throughout the continent of Africa, with different names and numbers of keys. The sound box of this instrument can be produced from graduated tin cans, sound boxes, and graduated gourds that are affixed to each key. In my opinion, the Mandinka Balafon is the most ornate instrument of this type. Per tradition, women do not play the Balafon.
The word Bambo refers to the woman who carried me on her back. It is a song that is voiced in praise of women who traditionally carry their babies on their back when they are infants. The selection was calmative and soothing in reminiscent of the woods that sing almost in tones of a lullaby.
Gine Fare was a rhythm familiar to the audience. This rhythm is played at the end of the harvest season and ushers in vigorous dancing.
The company is composed of fifteen ladies, but I never saw more than eleven women on the stage at one time. There was another first for Guinea, which is Khadijah Harper a Black American from Brooklyn who plays Djembe in the company.
After this point, it became difficult to follow the program as the program was altered and the audience was not informed of the changes.
Intermission gave us a chance to stretch our legs. After intermission came the pulsating rhythm of the ladies playing Djembe drums, Dioun-dioun and Sangban drums. This was the heartbeat of the group. We heard various rhythms such as Sofa and Doundounba. At times the women would abandon their drums and join in as a dancer. They performed feats of tumbling and small acrobatics. As there were only eleven women in the company, there was never a full quorum of dancers on stage at one time.
There was a pleasing Balafon selection played by three members of the company. When more than one Balafone is played, they are placed side by side wherein the smaller soprano keys face each other. When a third Balafon is played, it is placed so the larger bass keys face the bass keys of the center Balafon.
For comic relief a man entered the stage and began to play the instruments. He would manage to play a couple of measures of music before a female entered the stage and chased him away. He then went to another instrument, and was again chased away by a female artist. He repeated this behavior until the female musicians were on stage. The female drummers vigorously played various Djembe rhythms from Guinea much to the delight of the audience. The audience cheered on the drummers who ended their performance in a brisk crescendo of rhythms that represent the heartbeat of Africa.
The audience shouted bravo for a job well done.

///Article N° : 10722

Les images de l'article
Nimbaya! the Women's drums © Nathalie Roy
Nimbaya! the Womens's drums © Nathalie Roy

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