Tuesday, May 06, 2003
For the Star-Ledger

Leave 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 boundaries.

This 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.

There 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.

The 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.

Many 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.

Bah 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 an hour.

By the fourth piece, the rather staid audience was clapping along. No one accepted the invitation to dance until the finale.

From 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.

The 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 hidden.

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 new neighbors.

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.




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