(Concert Preview)

Herald Correspondent

"Out of Africa, always something new," said Roman writer Pliny the Elder in the year 77, citing a common Greek saying with roots going back centuries to Aristotle. Africa still has revelations for the rest of the world, and this Saturday, a group of Middlebury College students led by Tanzanian Yohanne Kidolezi will present some of them in a veritable feast of free public events. Those who already know about Mchakamchaka singing, gumboot dancing, Ghanian proverbs and Bantu languages may of course want to skip the afternoon presentations.

But even such experts on what used to be called "the Dark Continent" will want to attend the 8 p.m. concert at the Arts Center by the Fula Flute Ensemble. The concert, too, is free. But consider bringing some money to buy a copy of their CD Fula Flute (2002, Blue Monster).

This outfit is a multi-national Dream Team of first-class musicians whose talents have taken them to international careers. They are masters of such relatively lesser-known instruments as the tambin, the traditional flute of the nomadic Fulani people of Guinea and five other countries (voiced as well as blown so it plays chords); the balafon, a wooden xylophone, in this case handled by one of the redoubtable Diabate clan of West African griots (musician-storytellers); the kora, a stringed instrument with a gourd resonator likewise known across West Africa; another Diabate on congas; and an upright bass player.

Their ensemble playing gets put into the "jazz" category, but listening to their sound clips on their Web site ( also has clips, for those with the right software and type of Internet connection) revealed a combination of relaxed ambiance and passionate, virtuosic playing with a distinctly African sense of time and of mutual support. Their longest song on their site was like a hypnotic or shamanistic trance during which visions, both vehement and peaceful, kept materializing and fading away.

Jack Vartoogian of the New York Times hear them in 2000, and said their performance was "the best concert I attended in a year and a half." "The Fula Flute Ensemble's CD Dedication Concert was an extraordinary event, full of heartfelt and immediate music that demonstrates the special beauty and virtuosity of an all-too-rarely heard West African culture," said Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association. Rick Sanders of Roots Magazine said last March, "Forget Mozart and Freemasons, Fula Flute is the real magic flute."

The Arts Center is visible to the east of Route 30 (look for odd roof projections), and the access road to it goes eastward from Route 30 just to the north of it. Those parking spaces can also be used while at the workshops about to be described, or to park nearer to the student center, take the road onto the main campus that goes westward at the same intersection.

Saturday does have its share of college-level intellectual analysis, for those seriously concerned about African issues. At 1 p.m. in Proctor Hall (Hepburn Road, south off Route 125; park on Hillcrest, which goes southward from Route 125 just to the west), Opportune Zongo will talk on "Africa in the 21st Century: Strategies for a Better Representation, Understanding and Cooperation." Now directing a university program in Ohio, she combines undergraduate work at the Universite de Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso with a doctorate from the University of California at Santa Clara. That sort of cross-cultural linking will be a theme during student presentations and workshops from 2-4 p.m., with children's activities available at the same time. They will be in the McCullough student center; park as previously described, go to the center of the campus, and ask any student.

Visitors can choose from programs on how Ghana's proverbs help shape that society; the way old and new African music and culture are interrelating; how an African language group (Bantu) as vital as the Indo-European languages have spread and developed (Africa has many more languages than any other continent); and on the experience of studying abroad (which those thinking about traveling to Africa might want to attend).

But chances are that more people will gravitate to the gumboot and mchakamchaka workshops. Gumboot dancing started back in the slavery days of South African apartheid, when black gold miners were chained to work stations knee deep in foul water, and forbidden to speak while they worked. The owners, realizing they were losing workers too fast, got them waterproof Wellington gumboots--and the resourceful miners developed a way of communicating without words by slapping their boots and rattling their chains.After work, the gumboots became percussion instruments in the dancing the workers did, remembering their homelands. Eventually, they got so good that gumboot dancing took on a life of its own, and is now an international phenomenon.

There is a gumboot dancing group at the Dartmouth Medical School. At Holyoke College, there was a January Term course in gumboot dancing. Schools from Princeton to the University of Victoria in British Columbia are offering workshops, whose leaders all talk about what fun it is to learn this type of hamboning (Afro-Americans, when without instruments, developed their own style of body percussion). It may not even be necessary to bring your green rubber boots to Middlebury. Kidolezi said the College has about 20 pairs of suitable gumboots somewhere in the Arts Center, knowing this is definitely a living tradition.

Those who have gone caroling or wassailing will understand the joy of mchkamchaka, an even more active form of community-oriented singing. Kidolezi said. It started in the Sixties, mainly in Tanzania, as a way of spreading political messages, then by the time of his youth it had become a way of energizing students before the school day began. The students would come at 6 a.m., very tired from all the physical work they had to do at home, and not ready to learn, Kidolezi said. So to get ready, everyone would go out running and singing in groups of 40 or 50, sharing songs about nature's beauty or the value of doing good work and so on. After that, he said, "everyone would be all fit and ready to start school."

Now there's a lesson from Africa to a country whose national vegetable seems to have become the couch potato. Rutlanders may remember D'Moja, the tireless African drumming and dancing group that was a big hit for many years at First Night. They and the Middlebury student organization UMOJA, the presenter of Saturday's events, both took their names from a Kiswahili word meaning "community togetherness." People have many mistaken secondhand images of Africa, said UMOJA president Paul Opare-Addo. But "the practices that stem from that underexposure could be positively influenced by the more personal understanding that we, as peers from Africa, want to offer." "It's going to be very exciting," Kidolezi promised. And if the general public votes for the event with its feet, next year's version should be even bigger and better, he said. For more information, call him at 443-4308, or log onto



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