Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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You Gotta All Jump

When Guinea's Ballets Africains played City Center April 12, we expected an edifying evening--lively, gorgeously costumed, technically spectacular, but also a bit stilted and grand. After a few minutes of setup, however, the makeshift story detailed in the program notes yielded to the business at hand: some 30 lovingly modulated tribal dances strung together by choreographer Mohamed Kemoko Sano into a celebration of "Heritage" in which the size and exuberance of his state-supported troupe overwhelmed any impulse toward reverential folkloricism. Rather than the slightly augmented percussion ensembles we've seen accompanying smaller groups, the instrumentation encompassed West Africa's full indigenous range: drums in profusion, rattles, woodblocks, but also flutes, three big xylophonelike balafons, a 21-stringed kora, and an enormous bowl bass whose name we don't know. Plus, oh yes, voices, rising in penetrating chorus and clarion song from men and women who by all rights should have been gasping for breath on the sidelines. That's because the singers were dancers who had just performed obviously impossible feats of old-fashioned acrobatics, good-humored athleticism, and aerodynamic cooperation--not to mention such narrative chores as ritual mime, sexual innuendo, and an engagingly edifying sequence in which a young drummer is chastised for playing the wrong rhythm. Throughout, the tone struck the perfect balance--both "cultural" in the proudest postcolonial sense and as full of shtick as a Broadway revue.

(with Carola Dibbell)

Village Voice, 1996