BAND FROM AFRICA WIDENS RANGE OF FESTIVAL
May 06, 2003
BY FREDERICK KAIMANN
For the Star-Ledger
it to the Raritan River Music Festival. West Jersey's plucky, adventurous
spring concert series has done it again, beginning its four-week season
with a fringe winner that pushes up against the festival's ever-expanding
opening act on Saturday, the Fula Flute Ensemble at the Prallsville
Mills in Stockton, sounds staid enough at first. A bunch of flutists
could be as edgy as a recorder society having high tea.
But the Fula Flute Ensemble isn't a fraternity of James Galway, Jean-Pierre
Rampal and Zamfir acolytes. (Not that there's anything wrong with
that.) It's a West African pick-up band of all-star immigrants who
discovered each other in New York last year.
are only two flutists in the sextet: organizer and spokesman Sylvain
Leroux, a Montreal-born ethnomusicologist, and the masterful Bailo
Bah, a Guinean genius on the tambin, an African flute.
others play the instruments one might expect: Famoro Dioubate from
Guinea on the balafon (a type of marimba), the happy singing drummer
Abdoulaye "Djoss" Diabate from Mali, and the super-cool Malian Yacouba
Sissoko on the kora (a gourd-mounted harp). The only oddity is Peter
Fand, who plays the upright bass and who grew up in Maplewood.
of the musicians have played with each other before, some touring
internationally together prior to immigrating to the United States.
Leroux knit them together in his Manhattan apartment. Now they've
recorded a CD and started to play dates.
Dressed in brightly colored shirts that extend to their calves and
matching pants (though Diabate was spied at intermission in a Yankees
cap eating pretzels and sipping Coke), the performers were a jazz-like
combo of traditional African styles. They played riffs and choruses,
solos and acoustic sets.
centered the group with amazing flute vocals. Yes, he sang while playing
the flute, sometimes barking out his lines or whispering a tune as
he marched forward with a related melody on his three-holed wooden
instrument. His range was remarkable, from raspy drive to sweet and
light. Bah's flute was encrusted with shells and wrapped with white
tape. He made Leroux's plain instrument a week earlier. It took him
the fourth piece, the rather staid audience was clapping along. No
one accepted the invitation to dance until the finale.
a long line of griots, Diabate sang his many vocal parts in a light,
delicate voice that could insist on a verse or fade back to become
another sound among this African mélange. He hopped around,
pointing solicitously at his fellow musicians as his smiling vocals
continued during "Autorail," a song of praise.
problem with African griots (a village storyteller/newscaster) in
America is that the fascinating epics, wandering tales and historical
recitations are recounted in native languages, rendering their meanings
Is it being a cultural imperialist to want an English translation
or even an English-language version? Perhaps, but audiences welcoming
this new and vibrant generation of African immigrants into the fabric
of the American experience seek far greater understanding of their
Cultural adventurers like Leroux and Fand have spent years immersed
in West African cultures. Not everyone can be like Theodore Roosevelt,
who learned Icelandic for the sole purpose of reading the island's
national epic in its original tongue. Even opera in English has supertitles.