National/Regional Ballets & Other Jembe-based Performance Groups

Les Ballets AfricainsBeginning with Les Ballets Africains, started in Paris in 1952 by Fodeba Keita, national ballets have long provided a venue for disseminating African culture, uniting the traditions and instruments of various regions and groups within countries, and promoting “a national identity based on the contributions of all members of society.”(Charry 2000)   These ballets are inherently innovative, as they combine dances and rhythmic traditions from societies that do not normally associate with or influence each other. In fact, these ballets have provided one of the prevalent ways that neighboring groups have influenced each other. Along with official national ballets (which Guinea, Mali, and Senegal all have), there is a proliferation of ensembles, orchestras, and groups which serve to represent national cultures. Because ballets are the primary jembe-based performance groups, here I will focus on them.National ballets, as stated above, have become melting pots of national culture, combining not only musical and dance traditions from different national groups/tribes and different sections of the population, but also reformatting traditional ceremonial and village dances to make them appropriate for a stage setting in which the audience is not participatory–as would be the case were the performances to be held in a village and/or during a ceremony.  National ballets are one of the only venues in which jeli, numu (blacksmith), and hunter’s music are performed in the same setting, and more specifically, in the same song. Although ballets are jembe-based (they usually center around a lead jembe, accompanying jembes, and dunduns) they often include jeli instruments such as a kora, ngoni, or koni.  Additionally, traditional instruments such as the ancient warrior’s harp the bolon have been preserved primarily in their use in National Ballets. This preservation function is heightened by the long-felt decline of the hunter/warrior class and power societies in general. Since there is little daily function for such instruments as the bolon, their use in National Ballets serves as a way to continue the legacy of hunter/warriors and other declined societal sections. The use of power society ritual music and ceremonial music that is normally played for a select group of the initiated has created some controversy, but as Sekou Toure explained, “The National Ballet should present Africa, make her known and esteemed. Its programmes are not chosen in view of their educational and mobilizing qualities, but rather of the artistic representativeness of Africa and of the life of African peoples.” (Charry 2000, p 211: S. Toure 1963:261, n.d.:87) Thus, it not important that the audience understand the true meaning behind the dance and music, rather it is more important that the audience feel the essence of African/Malian/Guinean culture. Whether all ballets operate on these terms or that the audience members would agree with this idea is questionable, but I believe it is helpful to think of ballet performances as displays of culture rather than betrayers of secrets in order to better understand the innovations and combinations inherent in ballet performances. These ballets often include history lessons, such as retellings of the Sunjata Epic, in which lie the origins of the Mande Empire. This particular performance often necessitates the inclusion of a balofon, a key player in the conquering of the oppressive Kante king. For more information see Mande Music, Charry 2000. pp 211-213.  Specific Ballets  National ballets have also given rise to many professional musicians who have pursued careers on their own after leaving the ballets. Many of these have relocated to Europe or the United States, further spreading their culture and knowledge.  Risen Stars. There are and have been many important non-ballet national ensembles. By Emily Sheehan 

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