Next Thursday Overture's Capitol Theater hosts the Djoliba Ensemble of Bamako, Mali, billed on its first U.S. tour as the Song & Dance Ensemble of West Africa. Founded in post-independence Mali to preserve the country's musical heritage, this government-supported company of cultural ambassadors serves up a contemporary repertory rooted in the griot traditions of the medieval Malinke merchant empire that crossed the Sahel from Ivory Coast to landlocked Niger.
Outside of Mali, Djoliba's founder-director Bamba Dembele is better known as the king of Manding swing for his work as percussionist and manager of the gloriously Afropoppy Super Rail Band de Bamako. He's also the secretary of the National Association of Artists of Mali.
Dembele answered a few questions last week from a cell phone on a tour bus. He speaks no English and my French is dysfunctional, so Madelaine Collinson of Columbia Arts Management, the ensemble's U.S. tour manager, genially interpreted my queries for a French-speaking company member, who posed them to Dembele in Bambara, the lingua franca of multilingual Mali.
From Mali's staggering ethnic mix - Malinke, Bambara, Bobo, Soninke, Pulaar and the Berber-speaking, semi-nomadic Tuareg - Dembele, who's Malinke, takes traditional songs and arranges them for this show. It's very authentic music, he says, no electric guitar or modern drums. The instruments are classic West African griot accompaniment - djembe and doun doun drums, gourds, flutes; wooden, marimba-like balafon; kora, those long-necked, gourd-bodied, 21-string harps; and ngoni lutes, probable ancestors of the American banjo.
The 15-member troupe performs songs with classic griot themes - praise for the powerful, courage for warriors, stories that expose the moral roots of society - brought to life with what Collinson calls traditional village drum dances. "They've thrown in some stage steps to spice up the show," she told me, "but basically it's rhythmic, not symbolic."
If you're wondering whether to spring for tickets while the economy's in freefall, the answer's a resounding yes. This show's packed with appeal for world music and dance fans. The bandleader's a star, the musicians are members of Mali's legendary griot lineages, and while there's not a lot of available info on the Song & Dance Ensemble of West Africa, the lone video clip on the web reveals flat-out joyful dancing.
That's what I expect, since this is no road-weary, toured-out troupe. "They're loving America," Collinson said. "Except for Bamba, they've never been in the States. Before the tour their impression came from the movies. They thought we were a bunch of cowboys, but they're finding out that we're very simpatico and hospitable. They like us."
Most folks do, when they get past politics. Mali's view of the U.S. is colored by a history of French colonialism, three decades of socialism and unequal exchange in the current global economy. But there's been a lot of cultural and educational exchange between the two countries lately, Dembele points out. That's a positive force: "We've reached détente. We have good, peaceful relations with America."
That's certainly something to celebrate. Plus, this is a hallelujah, call-up-the-spirits show - exactly the kind of inspiration we need going into the election.