Corrections or additions?

This article by Regina Tan was prepared for the October 17, 2001

edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

African Arts Exuberance

In the Soussou language of West Guinea, "Wofa"

means "let’s go" or "come together!" Wofa! is also

the name chosen by an energetic 10-member troupe of musicians and

dancers offering works that fuse dance and percussive music. Their

show urges audiences to "come along" and share the experience

of West African culture.

Seven male percussionists and three female dancers make up Wofa. Most

of the group grew up in communities in and around Conakry, the capital

of Guinea, and have been working together since 1993. Wofa! performs

at State Theater, New Brunswick, on Wednesday, October 24. The group

appeared at the African Festival in Ivory Coast and at the 200th

Anniversary

Bastille Day Celebration on the Champs Elysees. And their New

Brunswick

show precedes the final leg of a 2001 world tour that will conclude

with appearances in Soissons, France, and the Percussion Festival

in Torino, Italy.

Guinea is unique for many reasons, says Wofa’s artistic director and

master drummer, Francois Kokelaere. And where dance is concerned,

Guinea is the only African country with more than 40 years of ballet

history. Wofa! has become known as one of the most liberal groups

in Western Africa for the way it combines traditional culture with

the contemporary presentation of the present.

In an interview conducted with the help of Wofa’s U.S. producer,

Bernard

Schmidt, Kokelaere says an integral part of Guinean dance history

was the influence of the "negroid" movement. Celebrating the

unique characteristics of African artists, it helped generate a group

of performers who are confident about their identity and have no

problem

adapting to the specific requirements of a proscenium stage theater.

Wofa! artists mix modern stagecraft and performance with a personal

vision of traditional music and dance. As Kokelaere says, the movement

"is about real African contemporary art which maintains its

inspiration

as a relationship with ancestral tradition. The artists, who are

immersed

in the traditional environment by playing in popular ceremonies or

rituals, swing from one to the other" without difficulty. Their

stage performances are elements of their professional status, and

their lives are organized around rehearsals, sabars or popular

celebrations, ritual ceremonies, and performances both within Guinea

and abroad.

"Wofa artists have developed, in part, within that powerful

artistic

heritage and, in part also, within the traditional culture, still

very present on the Lower Coast of Guinea," says Kokelaere.

As represented by Wofa’s work, the traditional culture of the Soussou

clan involves an artistic expression that relies on the rhythms of

percussion. Wofa musicians perform on several traditional instruments

from the Lower Coast: the kryin, a wooden drum formed in the

shape of a tree trunk played with sticks; the djembe, a drum

carved from a solid block of wood with a goatskin head, hung with

small metallic bells, and played with the full hand; the

balafon,

a close relative of the xylophone; and the wassakhoumba, a

set of small, graduated calabash discs, cut from dried gourds, and

strung onto a piece of curved wood.

The wassakhoumba, used in tribal initiation ceremonies, is

particularly important to ancient Baga and Sousou animist tradition.

Playing the wassakhoumba is believed to purify the area it

reaches with its sound. Children and the uninitiated were forbidden

to touch the sacred and sensitive instrument.

Wofa also incorporates the art of ballet, one of the major forces

in Guinean dance, in its work. These dances are designed to

communicate

a range of events that correlate with the ceremonies and rhythms of

life. "The artists within Wofa combine their tradition and the

reality of today’s Africa," says Kokelaere. "They have

many natural dispositions like most African musicians, as a result

of a cultural environment where music and dance are very present.

They are also professionals in that they rehearse daily and are

inhabited

by a true passion and an extraordinary determination for their art

form that has pushed them to form their own autonomous group."

"The esthetic at Wofa is a whole, where each element is the result

of a thorough thinking process and subtle blending," says

Kokelaere.

"All the criteria of Guinean dance and percussion music are there,

with the qualities one knows them for: energy, spontaneity,

spectacular

effects and efficiency. However, Wofa can also whisper and hush, lull

our senses, perform a movement in slow motion, command our attention

to develop a musical arrangement worthy of a symphonic orchestra and

mostly, mostly, make us dream."

— Regina Tan

Wofa!, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 877-STATE-11. $16 to $22. Wednesday, October 24, 8

p.m.


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