Dancers learn much on tour

November 16, 1990|By Mike Giuliano

'Africa Oye!'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $25 for orchestra and box seats, $19 and $12 for mezzanine seats.

Call: 625-1400. The immense proscenium arch above the stage of the Lyric Opera House may be this culture's idea of how to frame the arts, but how would you explain that notion to an African performer whose usual stage is a dirt circle in the open air?

Although about half of the 46 performers in the musical anthology "Africa Oye!" had never been out of their own countries before the show began its extensive tour last year, they are now all familiar with proscenium arches and, for that matter, the golden arches of fast-food restaurants. Indeed, when "Africa Oye!" comes to the Lyric Saturday and Sunday, it will be the second time the production has been seen in Baltimore.

The nine tribal groups represented include the Pende dancers from Zaire, known for their impressive masks and straw-woven costumes; the Peul acrobats and drummers from Guinea; singer Kandia Kouyate from Mali; the Babunda from Zaire, whose instruments include a horn made from a calabash gourd, and the Mbulie-Hemba from Zaire, whose men put on makeup and take up dance steps usually associated with their women.

"This is performance in its natural state, not something we have choreographed for touring purposes," emphasizes "Africa Oye!" company manager Mark Napoletano. However, he adds, "Each group is kept to no more than 12 minutes on stage, whereas at home they each might perform all night long."

The story of how "Africa Oye!" came together involves a French producer, Michel Boudon, and an American producer, Mel Howard, deciding to present African music and dance in pure form to audiences around the world.

Despite linguistic and cultural differences between the tribes, most of them are from West African nations and share French as a common language, Mr. Napoletano says. While on the road, they have developed a sense of family that seems inevitable considering that "Africa Oye!" translates as "Long live Africa!"

Just as audiences at the Lyric will be learning about African culture, these African performers have themselves been getting a fast, if often puzzling, education. In Paris, they clung to the platform railings atop the Eiffel Tower and wondered why anyone would build something so high. In Los Angeles, a performer was stopped by the police for jaywalking, a law he could not understand. And in New York City, an African chief, who assumed all white people are rich, was startled to see whites among the homeless.

These African performers also have felt a kinship with African-American culture, as when Mr. Howard, who is a producer of the blues-and-jazz musical "Black and Blue," took the "Africa Oye!" company to see that show. Mr. Napoletano says the African performers, sitting in a Broadway theater, readily followed this music, which developed from their own.

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