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 traditions
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 of February.

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 and heritage.

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 world.

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.



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