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Africa Oye! combines anthropological relics and stirring showmanship


World Premiere.

Boston Opera House.

May 4-7.


STIRRED BY THE GROWTH OF interest in "World Music" and eager to hear some of the drumming that propelled the tunes on Graceland along so catchily, Bostonians turned up en masse at the Opera House to watch Africa Oy'e. What were they hoping for? Some seemed to want the atmosphere of a rock concert and were happiest when they could clap along to a band; others sought spectacle. Most were uncertain what to expect and perhaps hoped to see something of a new culture.

The performances by nine different groups, each from a different cultural background, ranged widely in style and content. The most intriguing, and those which the audience found most unsettling were those that seemed the least adapted to stage performance -- perhaps because they clashed with the gilded Opera House decor. The most exotic, such as the masked dance of the Pende from Northwest Zaire, seemed to be the genuine artifacts of cultures different from those of most of the audience. And yet they were being offered as spectacle for the audience, creating an strange tension between anthropological facts and entertaining dances. It may be that the the most intriguing acts were no more "authentic" than the more overtly stagy ones, but they certainly seemed an exciting glimpse at something very profound.

They were also very beautiful. The Batwa-Ekonda of Northern Zaire danced the Ipoto, a homage to ancestors -- which isn't at all obvious without consulting the program notes. The dancers were painted with speckles of ochre, and moved with the twitch and quiver of agile animals across a set lit in orange washes of color.

For sheer athleticism, the Peul acrobats of Guinea stole the show. While playing a flute and a drum, two men began a series of increasingly spectacular leaps and skips. These culminated in aerial somersaults and contortionist headspinning executed by performing musicians. The jumps looked all the better for the huge white muslim cotton pantaloons that the dancers wore, which ballooned out magnificently with every turn they made.

In contrast to the earlier acts, the Percussionists of Guinea were a highly professional stage act. A continual rolling swell of hand drum beats was adorned with volleys of individual solo playing. The rhythms generated a tremendous forward momentum by frequently shifting the strong beat. The accompanying dancing was some of the most frantic and wild of the evening. Unlike the slower, swaying motion of the Mbulie-Hemba earlier, who had generated undulations from deep inside their hips, this was an angular, jabbing display that seemed close to complete abandonment. Here was a forceful reminder of the roots of so much jazz music and dancing that lie within the soil of Africa.

The final number was an appearance by Papa-Wemba, a consummate showman from Zaire, and his band. Wemba is known as Pope des Sapeurs in his native country, and certainly he was a most natty dresser, in voluminous silk pants and high collared jacket. Papa-Wemba's music was arresting. More driving than the lighter beat of Southern African music, which has probably enjoyed the widest international exposure, it gave a powerful call to dance. Wemba's voice is surprisingly high and buzzing, and stirred busy vocal flurries over the richer, more conventional singing of his two backing singers.

The audience was happy to end on a such a rousing number, where it was clearly "all right" to clap along and shout, but the most interesting part of the evening had been the earliest. Africa Oy'e! offers much to admire, wonder at, and enjoy. It is fortunate indeed that a wide audience will be exposed to this diversity of dance traditions that have contributed so much to modern Western dance.