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African drums build slowly

Senegalese group sheds its lethargy in the evening's second half when its charismatic leader shifts the energy level to high.

October 13, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The Drummers of West Africa and their dynamic, 70-something leader, Doudou N'Diaye Rose, have so much percussive firepower at their command that it may seem a bit strange to describe one of their performances as low intensity.

Actually, it was only the first half of the Senegalese ensemble's appearance at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday night that had such a lethargic feeling. Despite a stage full of drummers and a rainbow of colorful costumes, the opening two numbers -- "Baifall" by the male drummers and "Les Rosettes" by the female percussionists -- sounded repetitious and surprisingly mechanical. The music itself provided so little interest that there was ample time to marvel over the fact that what Rose dubs his "Percussion Orchestra" is a family ensemble, including many of his reported four wives, 39 children, their spouses and numerous grandchildren.

Matters shifted dramatically in the second half. The opening piece, "Saouroubas," added a much-needed touch of theatricality via a women's chorus, singing, dancing and drumming with enthusiastic togetherness. Climaxing the evening, Rose took center stage, finally affirming the musical reputation that has made him a highly praised international figure for decades.

Playing his sabar -- a hand-crafted instrument resembling a conga drum, played with a stick and a hand -- he was charismatic in the extreme.

Alternating between conducting his ensemble with the flair of a Leonard Bernstein and driving the music's shifts of sound and volume with his own drumming, Rose brought life to a performance that had been in danger of slipping into innocuousness.

By the end, enthusiastic audience members were leaping on stage to join Rose's dancer-percussionists in high-spirited, rhythmic gyrations -- a surprising conclusion to an evening that had begun in such bland fashion.

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