World children share joy and talent at arts festival

Tiger dancing and calypso pan clanging in a chocolate factory.

How do you fit 19 children into an eight-seater minibus?

Pretty easily, if they happen to be pygmies from West-Central Africa. You can pack in a fair number of lithe and delicately limbed Balinese child dancers, too. But when it comes to the husky teenage Trinidadians, it is strictly one per seat.

That is the sort of logistical lore that Christian Costesec has learned, looking after children from all over the world who are gathering in this small provincial town west of Paris this summer for a remarkable festival of world music - with a difference.

The difference is that all the musicians, singers, and dancers drawing crowds to an out-of-commission chocolate factory, transformed for the occasion, are children.

Mutual sense of wonder

And as they watch each other, play with each other, and learn from each other, they have taken their mutual sense of wonder and woven from it an extraordinary sense of community.

Each evening after the performances, pygmy children from Cameroon hang out with kids from the Indonesian island of Bali at the suburban youth center where they are staying. And the two groups are showing each other how they dance.

"They don't understand each other's language, but there is a kind of communion of gesture," says Pulchrie Nomo Zibi-Moulango, a Cameroonian official accompanying the children. "Through the children something remarkable is happening. There is a spontaneous connection because everyone wants to learn."

They end up copying each other, the diminutive, square-bottomed pygmy girls undulating and stretching out their arms and fingers in slow motion in imitation of their willowy Balinese sisters. The Balinese girls stomp and chant as if they were pygmies in a forest clearing.

"The oral traditions that these kids come from are handed down by imitation and then invention," says festival director Alain Weber. "They have an extraordinary power of imitation, and they memorize things more quickly than we do."

This cross-cultural pollination among the performers was not what festival organizers had in mind. The idea was that as part of France's year-long millennium celebrations, "Today's Children, Tomorrow's Musicians" would show audiences of French schoolchildren the many ways children make music around the world.

"Traditional music, passed down from generation to generation, is disappearing all over the world," says Mr. Weber. He adds, "Our aim is to try to keep the chain of transmission together, and to show our children something other than television."

Antidote to TV

That, French children are seeing. The old chocolate factory - a cavernous, abandoned industrial hulk - has been divided into three performing spaces.

In a circular, sand-floored tribal space hedged in with bamboo, the pygmies dance and chant. Later in the summer, a troupe from Madagascar, tiger dancers from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, and aboriginal Australian children will rotate their shows here.

The village setting was hung with richly patterned crimson silks and carpeted with ornamental rugs for the Balinese opera troupe. It will be decorated differently for a Yemeni lute player, and for a group of singers from Azerbaijan.

But the urban scene - where corrugated iron fences, graffiti-splashed walls and a bare concrete wall recall an abandoned inner city lot - will stay the same when the Renegades Junior Groove, a 16-piece Trinidadian steel band playing on instruments fashioned from old oil drums, moves on. Then, the street kid percussionists from the Ivory Coast, gypsy children from the Spanish province of Andalusia, and a Cuban salsa group will take over.

For the moment though, this is the Renegades' turf. In the echoing old factory, the calypso tunes they pound out are deafening ... and contagious. In a corner, behind the bleachers where the audience was sitting, a group of new converts to Caribbean rhythms danced the other day.

But they kept to their pygmy ways: The boys danced with the boys, the girls with girls.

A virtuoso pan-pounder

And the admiration is mutual. Fourteen-year-old Aronne De Souza, who has been playing the pans in San Juan, Trinidad for the past three years, said she likes the pygmy show best. "I like how the Africans sing," she explained. "They don't know much about music, but they know all about harmony."

What will Aronne take home with her, when her band goes back to Trinidad?

"It's one world, I suppose," she says after a moment's thought. "Yet there are so many ways to make music and enjoy yourself."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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