World beaters

Les Percussions de Guinee drum up interest

Wednesday January 22, 2003 12:04 am EST

When Les Percussions de Guinée arrive in Atlanta this weekend, they should attract not only those curious types drawn to the colorful and the exotic, but serious musicians looking to study and observe.

And there are more of the latter than you might think. A growing multicultural consciousness and the increased availability of indigenous instruments have fueled American interest in the drumming traditions of West African countries — of which Les Percussions de Guinee are a small but influential part. The renowned 15-member ensemble includes seven master drummers, players of balafon (a kind of xylophone), kora (a stringed instrument) and flute, and traditional dancers. They perform music from all regions of Guinea, but place a strong emphasis on the music of the country's coastal region, much of which showcases the djembe drum. Originally, the body of the drum was carved out of a single block of the djem tree's extremely dense wood, and its head was made out of goatskin. These days, the heads are still goatskin and the bodies carved from a block of wood — though parts traditionally made of cane, leather and wood are now metal and synthetic rope.

Like the modern version of the djembe drum, Les Percussions de Guinee may be inspired by the traditional, but the group describes itself as "resolutely modern in its scenic presentation." As such, they hardly shy away from the international spotlight. French label Buda Musique has released multiple recordings featuring the group. They've performed with such mainstream artists as Harry Belafonte, Elvin Jones and the Police, and they also appear in the IMAX documentary, Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey. On stage, Les Percussions de Guinee offer a fascinating and compelling mix of vibrant, hypnotic polyrhythms and visceral dance, colored by the folklore of the Djeli storytellers.

In the tradition of the Djeli, the medium of drum and dance is used to teach the history of African ethnic groups. But a look at Guinea's recent history makes the impact of the modern world on that traditional way of communicating difficult to ignore. Guinea's mineral wealth offers the economic potential for it to become one of Africa's richest countries. And yet its nearly 8 million people are among the poorest in West Africa. Refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone — a half- million by late 2000 — have only added to the economic burden and related tensions.

Guinea gained independence from France in 1958 and looked to the Soviet Union for economic and political guidance. That same year, its leadership earnestly undertook state patronage of indigenous arts. But times under that regime were difficult, and in 1984, the "socialist experiment" was abandoned.

After current president Lansana Conte seized power in a bloodless coup, Guinea began looking westward for new friends. That's where Les Percussions de Guinee comes in. Founded in 1987 by the new government's Ministry of Culture, they immediately began serving as their country's cultural ambassadors.

Under their managing director and producer, Mamoudou Conde, Les Percussions de Guinee take their ambassadorship seriously — and their mission couldn't be any clearer: to make the rest of world fall in love with their homeland, culture and people through teaching and entertaining.

To that end, Les Percussions de Guinee demonstrate that the richness of Guinea's cultural resources are as significant an asset as its mineral resources. And if the group can interest the Western world in both, then all the better for the people of Guinea.


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