Media Credit: Vlad Lodoaba
The Fula Ensemble's performance last Saturday at the Center for the
Arts marked the finale of Middlebury's African Immersion Series.
Fula flutes celebrate tribal
By Rebecca Browngoehl
Published: Thursday, March 11, 2004
On Saturday night in the Center for the Arts
Concert Hall, six men emerged on stage in tribal African robes and
engaged the audience with music from the Fulani people of West Africa.
The concert was the culminating event of the African Immersion series
that took place on the Middlebury College campus during the month
About 100 community members, including Middlebury
students and faculty, enjoyed an hour of distinctive Fulani melodies,
which derive from the nomadic cattle and goat herder tribe that occupies
parts of Guinea, Senegal and Gambia. The flute, an instrument associated
with these tribes, has been a part of their tribal traditions and
entertainment for hundreds of years.
Because this tribe is credited with spreading
Islam throughout West Africa, it is no surprise that the flute's light
weight and simple construction made it a favorite traveling companion.
The members of the Fula ensemble effortlessly performed a diversity
of sounds on a solitary wooden flute.
Before the performers entered, their instruments
rested on stage, and audience members were intrigued by the uniqueness
of their form and appearance.The Kora,
which faintly resembles a harp with a cylindrical neck and a large
cow skin covering, was perhaps the most interesting instrument. The
general shape is reminiscent of an overgrown guitar, but with an addition
of 20 or so extra strings.
The Kora is a fairly modern instrument that
sounds like a combination between a lute, harp and guitar. Because
of the instrument's unique shape, the audience was unable to see the
musician plucking on the strings. The musician simply sat behind the
instrument motionless while a cascade of song flowed from the stage.
The other remarkable instrument was the Tambin,
a classic wooden flute that combines typical flute sounds with human
vocal interjections. The audience was in for quite surprise when one
of the flutists began producing noises into his flute that sounded
like a mixture of guttural yelping and jazzy blues singing.
The balafon, an elongated xylophone, was played
with such zest and ease it was often impossible to see the individual
strokes of the mallets as they careened up and down the instrument.
Several pieces were accompanied by stories
illustrating Africa's rich cultural past and promising future. The
Duga, a song about the vulture - a bird of immense power in ancient
African legends - was written in homage to a powerful tribe. The slow
crescendo of a single flute culminating in all four instruments and
human voice demonstrated the power and vivacity of Fulani harmony
Later in the performance, the group dedicated
an original piece to a young woman who had passed away in an untimely
fashion. The song's soulful music was coupled with melancholy movements
as the men on stage bobbed and swayed in rhythm. A third song, dedicated
to bull-headed and fierce African dictator who was respected by his
tribe for his opposition to French colonizers, demonstrated the understanding
of the musicians for their collective history. During this piece,
the lead singer danced on stage, approaching each musician and urging
him to play his instrument with more soul.
The guttural shouts of the flutist as he blew
hot air through his instrument and called out simultaneously to the
audience brought the tumult and emotion of Africa's past into today's
Having released its first CD only two years
ago, the Fula Flute ensemble has enjoyed much success. Led by Sylvian
Leroux, a French-Canadian with West African roots, the band charmed
the audience, touching those present through song.
The 60-year-old man who sat two seats in front
of me bopped his head and tapped his foot on the floor for the duration
of the show. He turned to me with his purple and red felt hat and
exclaimed, "Can you believe these guys - they really know how to play!"
And neither I nor anyone who sat in the concert hall that night, immersed
as we were in the tribal rhythms, could argue with that.