AFRICA OY'E is a curious mixture of styles, personalities, and performing strategies. With dancers, singers, and musicians from four West African countries, the show is entertaining and at the same time disorienting. The thing it most resembles is a rock concert, but the acts vary from eclectic pop to shambling, informal walkarounds that might have got onto the stage by accident. Producers Mel Howard and Michel Boudon have assembled eight groups for this two-hour extravaganza, and if you do the arithmetic, you can see there isn't much time to hold onto any one of them. I guess that's the point, because the show moves like an antelope. There are shamanistic and ceremonial maskers, divested of their ritual contexts. There's a group of terrific drummers from Guinea, all dressed up and playing in formation, with their three high-stepping girlfriends looking as though they could march in a Fourth of July parade. Kandia Kouyate, the only other woman, exhorts and cajoles the audience with songs in the tradition of the Griots - the historians and wise men of the community.
The all-hits format encourages the audience to be content with grooving on the beat, the costumes and paint, the occasional bravura trick.
The Peul Acrobats from Guinea are really a musical group, led by El Haja Djelly Sorry Kouyate on the balafon, a wooden xylophone that hangs around his neck. Another member of this group plays a large round gourd cut in half, drumming on its rotund surface with metal-ringed fingers. The flute player steps out to do a solo, but soon he's turning flips and spinning on his shoulders like a break dancer, while punctuating his tricks with blasts on the flute. The gourd player, having set down his cumbersome instrument, does an amazing dance on his hands, hurling himself in four directions.
In contrast, the Kanouri group from Niger simply stood and played their Griot songs. Leader Chetina Ganga and his son play the alghaita, a sort of trumpet with a high, nasal, Arabic sound. They fill their cheeks with air and do the whole song in circular breathing, so there are no pauses in the ornate melodic line. They're accompanied by two drummers, and all of them move like North African musicians and dancers, to whom they're related. With the sound whirling around their vertical, regal figures clad in caftans and fezzes, they might begin spinning at any minute.
Sometimes, glimpsing this cultural panorama, I saw connections to contemporary American music, like the two marimba players who did an intricate polyrhythmic duet in a style appropriated by Steve Reich. Sometimes I just saw bits, one-liners, as in the antics of the masked Pende of Zaire. This barrel of clowns were festooned with fringes on different parts of their bodies - hands, feet, waists - and proceeded to shake whatever part was so adorned as fast as they could. Two men engaged in a face-to-face battering match. One seemed to be doing the frug at one point, while another, with what looked like an animal head and tail, was off at the side swiveling his hips lewdly.
The flamboyant Mbulie-Hemba were costumed in feathers, beads, leopard skins, and face paint. Their drums were enormous trapezoidal slabs of what might be smooth, worn wood, two slabs fastened together with a space in between for resonance. The musicians accompany three dancers, who imitate women, circling the area with small bouncy steps or soft oppositional ones, and showing off with fast pelvic shimmies. One man undulated his whole body very slowly and erotically, all the while grinning at the audience. This dance seemed to be related to shamanistic healing practice, which often employs transvestism.
The most ingenuous group, and the most interesting to me, was the Batwa-Ekonda pygmies from Zaire, performing outside their country for the first time. Crossing the stage in a tight cluster, the five men stayed close to the ground, crouched and bent-kneed, like prowling hunters. Their only instruments were an oval gourd that one man hit in a 2/2 meter, and a hollow stick that another played in 3/2. Against this polyrhythm, the other three dancers moved with individual responses to the beat. Their patterns seemed diffuse yet interconnected, and I wanted to see much more of them.
The show closed with Papa Wemba and his Western-style band, which played congas and jazz drums, electric guitars and keyboards, and had three singers holding mikes and gyrating like rockers. When the whole caboodle came out for a bow at the end of the show, Papa Wemba led the audience in singing a tribute to each group, ending with a celebratory ``New York Oy'e!'' If the world is a global village, this is the way to enjoy it.
After three weeks at New York's City Center, Africa Oy'e will travel to San Antonio, Washington, and Los Angeles.