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A Blending of Traditions From Guinea

The music and dance ensemble Wofa brings its exotic instruments to the U.S.

October 18, 1998|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The sounds are distinctive, yet vaguely familiar. A mellow wooden clatter reminiscent of a xylophone, the surging percussion of a hand drum, a shaking rattle that recalls a set of maracas.

And, when the lights come up after a performance by the Guinean music and dance group Wofa, the connections become clear. The xylophone sound is actually being produced by a balafon, a set of wooden blocks bound together on a wooden frame with calabash or bamboo resonators. The hand drum rhythms are generated by a djembe, a goblet-shaped drum topped by a goatskin tensioned by carefully laced cords. And the rattling sounds are produced by kesekeseni, long-handled, feathered rattles filled with small seeds or pebbles.

The instruments are fascinating, both visually and audibly. But Wofa has much more to offer. Before the performance is over, the company members will play, among other instruments, the tolonyi (a steel bell struck with iron sticks), the lengue (a large half-calabash shell that is held to the chest and played with the hands) and a variegated collection of drums that include the big, metallic dounoun, the smaller sangban and the square-framed sikko.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, they will use the wassakhoma--a set of small calabash discs of increasing diameters, gathered onto an angled wooden rod, which clink together as they are shaken and vibrated. Its high-pitched hypnotic sound has been used to create initiation chant rhythms in West Africa, where ancient tradition assigns powers of purification to the instrument.

Wofa is the latest in a line of music and dance ensembles that have emerged from West Africa's Guinea, a country with a 40-year dance history dating back to such seminal groups as Les Ballets Africains and Ballet Djoliba. Formed in 1993 by former members of an award-winning percussion organization, Wofa (which means "come along" in the Soussou language) is a cooperative group--a rarity in Guinea, where the rule of seniority usually prevails.

"Wofa functions according to a real democratic process, where each and everyone takes a share of responsibility," explains the ensemble's artistic director, Francois Kokelaere.

Currently in the middle of its first U.S. tour, the ensemble makes its only Southern California appearance Friday at El Camino's Marsee Auditorium.

Their instruments play essential roles in Wofa's creatively holistic approach to music making. Interactivity is stressed, and the lines between music and dance blur in pieces where dance-like movements become natural extensions of the process of making music.

A Wofa performance, according to Kokelaere, "is an entity in which movement, dancing, music, theater, humor, directorship, scenery, choreography and lighting blend without the audience being able to distinguish borders."

That blending is a constant factor in Wofa presentations, in which the players are obliged to demonstrate considerable versatility. The company consists of five male musician-dancers and three female dancers. The eight male performers--bare-chested and barefoot, wearing loose, baggy pants--play all of the percussion and mallet instruments in Wofa's colorful arsenal. The three female dancers, wearing beaded skirts and a variety of body ornaments, are the company's visual storytellers--sometimes singing, sometimes adding their own bits of drum playing--as they physically enact the tales associated with each of the pieces.

While some of Wofa's music is original, much of it is based upon traditional rhythms, melodies and texts. There are celebratory pieces; there are descriptive works about birds and snakes; there are pieces devoted to life passages such as love, marriage, circumcision and death. Some works are primarily instrumental, others are dramatic cameos with declamatory interaction between the performers.

Despite its reliance upon folk texts, music and rhythms, Wofa's performances are not specifically concerned with traditional African techniques and methods. Extensively trained and rehearsed as a company, the Wofa musicians and dancers are performers, not ethnographers, and their work is clearly indebted to the evolution of staged dance or "ballet," which has a 40-year history in Guinea.

Kokelaere points out the influence of African artistic directors such as Keita Fodeba, who founded Les Ballets Africains (one of the first, and most important, West African dance companies) in the late '50s. His pan-African, multidimensional vision, Kokelaere feels, encourages Wofa's members in their goal to be "confident about their [African] identity and have no problem adapting to the specific characteristics of a proscenium stage theater."

Wofa, continues Kokelaere, "benefits from both cultures: the one from the villages and the one from the ballet. From the villages because the artists are immersed daily in the traditional music and dance environment of their Soussou clan, and from the ballet because they were educated and trained by the best artists from the ballet environment."

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