Rhythms of change

African dance troupe sees itself as model for peace

In the year since Kansas University's inaugural World Music and Cultural Diversity Concert, more than 580 U.S. service members and untold numbers of Iraqi civilians have died in the war with Iraq.

Palestinians and Israelis continue to aim rockets at one another. And just weeks ago, 192 people perished when bombs ripped through a commuter train in Madrid, Spain.

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To put it mildly, peace is not at work in the world.

But Mamoudou Conde sees its seeds in a vibrant African dance troupe coming to Lawrence for the second annual World Music and Cultural Diversity Concert.

Conde manages Les Ballets Africains, the national dance company of the Republic of Guinea, a West African country that's seen its share of violence and civil unrest.

The country is divided into four natural regions, each inhabited by cultural groups with distinct languages and customs. The 30-member dance company draws its talent from all those regions, making it something of a microcosm.

Company members speak five to eight languages. They strive to understand one another's backgrounds. And their appreciation for diversity comes through in their onstage interpretations of African cultures and histories from throughout the continent.

"We all are one, and we're trying to take that to the world," Conde said on the phone from the company's tour bus. "We need to get together and be one unified world. We show that out of this company, actually, because we were able to do that in Guinea. So the entire world could do it, too."

"Instead of fighting and destroying each other, we'd rather get together and know that we are only human, all of us."

Cultural solutions

Music and dance are perfect conduits to pass along such messages, says concert organizer Clarence Henry, KU assistant professor of ethnomusicology.

"I think when people actually listen to music of different cultures, they kind of learn how to appreciate cultures in general," he said.

"I think that since Sept. 11, people in the world have become closer and are forming relationships and ideologies of what's going to make the world a better place for future generations."

Henry has expanded last year's one-day concert into a weeklong festival that begins Monday at Kansas University and includes panel discussions, workshops and world music concerts.

The week will culminate with a performance by Les Ballets Africains at Liberty Hall.

The troupe is celebrating its 50th anniversary by restaging dances by its founder, Guinean poet and choreographer Keita Fodeba. He created a dance troupe in France in 1952 -- a time when many African countries were fighting against colonialism (Guinea gained its independence from France in 1958). He renamed the company Les Ballets Africains in 1954.

Fodeba humanized black people through his choreography, and he and his company members were later deemed the "Ambassadors of Culture" by president Ahmed Sekou Toure.

The 50th anniversary program draws from Fodeba's creative well, using dance, drama and rhythms played on traditional African instruments to take audiences to African markets, through cultural rituals and into the heart of struggles to change society.

One scene, for example, illustrates a move away from female genital mutilation and toward a new reverence for women.

"We help to heal. We help to communicate. We help to convince people," Conde said. "It doesn't stop just with traditional music and dance. We go totally beyond that because we believe that we can convince people in Africa and the rest of the world more easily than many other people could because you'll be able to point to certain things in culture and solve them through culture (better than you could) solve those problems politically."

Breaking barriers

The company's mission is to foster a greater understanding of Africa and a brighter future for its people.

"The reason for that is the same reason that (Fodeba) in 1952 founded the company: because many people were thinking that Africa was nothing but a bad thing. The media was not helping at that time to show the positive about the continent," Conde says.

"The more people understand our culture, the more they will know that Africa is not just about the civil war, and it's not just about the violence, it's not just about AIDS -- it's also about something very positive."

Who wouldn't want a balanced image of their homeland presented to the world? That sentiment is just one tie that binds wildly different cultures around the globe, and those links are what led Henry to assign the theme "Local and Global Connections" to this year's festival.

Another of those connections: music.

"Not only is music very important in different cultures, but I don't have to be in the Middle East to hear Middle Eastern music, for example," Henry said. "We're really close with the technology we have today.

"It goes beyond language. (Music) is a form of communication. It has more movement and rhythm to it, and people can actually relate to it. I don't have to speak French to be able to appreciate French music. I don't have to be African to appreciate African music.

"Music kind of goes beyond cultural barriers."




Events scheduled for KU's World Music and Cultural Diversity Festival

The following panels, workshops and concerts are scheduled during Kansas University's second annual World Music and Cultural Diversity Festival, Monday-April 5. All events are free except the Sunday concert.

Monday

  • "Local and Global Connections," a KU panel discussion, 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m., International Room, Kansas Union.
  • Larry and Linda Maxey, klezmer music concert and discussion, 4 p.m.-4:30 p.m., International Room.

Tuesday

  • "Blues Lunch," Thom Alexander, Americana Music Academy, noon-1 p.m., International Room.
  • Music and Culture of Native Americans workshop, by Dennis Rogers, of Topeka, 1:30 p.m.-3 p.m., International Room.
  • Dance demonstrations by KU Swing Society, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m., International Room.
  • Spanish music concert featuring Genaro Mendez and students, accompanied by Holly Beneventi, 6 p.m.-7 p.m., Alderson Auditorium.
  • Concert featuring Terry Baldridge and the Japanese Taiko Drumming Ensemble of Mid-America Nazarene University, Olathe, 8 p.m.-8:35 p.m., Room 118, Murphy Hall.

Wednesday

  • North American Music workshop, The Orenunn Trio, KU music, 1 p.m.-2 p.m., International Room.
  • Latin American Music workshop, Jay Metz, KU Latin American studies, 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m., International Room.

Thursday

  • "Music of the Middle East," Masani Azura, KU social welfare, 10 a.m.-noon, Alderson Auditorium.
  • Video presentation by local filmmakers Carol Burns and Ollie Hall, 1:30 p.m.-4 p.m., Alderson Auditorium.

Friday

  • Foundations of Hip-Hop workshop, Charlie Craine, KU American studies, 11 a.m.-noon, International Room.
  • Music of Asia workshop, Yi-Fang Ko, KU music, 1 p.m.-2 p.m., International Room.
  • Djembe Rhythms of West Africa workshop, Djembe Kaan, of Kansas City, Mo., 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m., International Room.
  • Piano Music of Europe, concert featuring Spanos Evangelos, KU music, 5:30 p.m.-6 p.m., Alderson Auditorium.
  • Piano Music of Europe, concert featuring Anoli Dhimitri, 6 p.m.-6:30 p.m., Alderson Auditorium.
  • Concert featuring Paul Laird and KU's Instrumental Collegium Musicum, 6:30 p.m.-7 p.m., Alderson Auditorium.
  • Lithuanian vocal and piano music, featuring Remigijus Sabaliauskas and Peilien Wu, KU music, 7:30 p.m.-8 p.m., Alderson Auditorium.

Saturday

Pre-World Music and Cultural Diversity Concert, Alderson Auditorium:

  • Wichita State University Ghanaian Ensemble, noon-12:30 p.m.
  • Wichita State University Afro-Cuban Ensemble, 12:30 p.m.-1 p.m.
  • Wichita State University La Banda Hispanica, 1 p.m.-1:30 p.m.
  • Wichita State University Steel Drum Orchestra, 1:30 p.m.-2 p.m.
  • Masani Azura & Belly Dancers (music of the Middle East), 2 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
  • Yi-Fang Ko (music of Asia), 2:30 p.m.-3 p.m.
  • Alexander Snytkin and Melanie Hadley, violin and piano (music of Lithuania), 3 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
  • Andean Express (music of Latin America), 3:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
  • African Student Ensemble, 4 p.m.-4:30 p.m.
  • The Orenunn Trio (American music), 4:30 p.m.-5 p.m.
  • Capoeira Beribazu (music and dance of Brazil), 5 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
  • 2 Ta Tango (music of Latin America), 6 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
  • Robbie Overton (accordion), 6:30 p.m.-7 p.m.
  • Djembe Kaan (music of Africa), 7 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
  • Rmony Haitian Compas (music of Haiti), 7:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
  • KU Inspirational Voices of Gospel (African American), 8 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Sunday

  • Second annual World Music and Cultural Diversity Concert, featuring Les Ballets Africains, the national dance company of the Republic of Guinea, with opening performance by the New Dawn Native Dancers, 5 p.m., Liberty Hall, 642 Mass.

Monday

  • Meet the artists: Les Ballets Africains, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m., Alderson Auditorium.

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