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Nimbaya! beats the odds - and the drums

All-female group inspires, empowers through African dance

Nimbaya! hails from Guinea, where drumming is reserved for men; for women it is nearly taboo

The tremendous swirl of color and rhythm; the rich layering of djembe drums with the kora lute and marimba-like balafon; storytelling theater that starts as gentle conversation and escalates into a dance party that pulls the audience out of their seats: Nimbaya!, the dance and drumming troupe from Guinea, delivers all you expect from a top-notch African dance event.

Plus something more.

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In an unusual departure from tradition, Nimbaya! consists of only women - not just the dancers, but also the musicians. The troupe’s very existence stands as a rebuke to the ancient custom that reserves drumming for men, and regards a woman on djembe as nearly taboo.

NIMBAYA!

Sanders Theatre, 617-876-4275.

Date of first performance:
Sunday, Feb. 12 at 3 p.m.
Ticket price:
$22-$28
Company website:
http://www.worldmusic.org

Founded in 1998, the troupe takes its name from the Nimba mask of Guinea’s Baga people - a symbol of fertility, beauty, and female power. The troupe’s own power is manifest in the school it runs in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, where around 50 young women at a time are training as professional dancers and musicians.

The most advanced join the traveling troupe, which has crisscrossed the world on concert and workshop tours, and which visits Sanders Theatre Sunday.

“Nimbaya! has changed my life,’’ says Seregbè Conde, a current troupe member, in French on the phone from Conakry. The women, drawn from all of Guinea’s major ethnic groups and regions, come from traditional backgrounds. To become a professional drummer is daring enough; to make a globe-trotting career of it, all the more extraordinary.

But with multiple years in the group - Conde joined in 2001 - she and her colleagues take the experience in stride. The focus is on the performance, and on the messages that it aims to deliver. Part is a general message of cultural identity and empowerment. Part is specific to a theme - this year, eradicating female genital mutilation (FGM), the practice also known as genital cutting, which is widespread in Guinea and many countries, not just in Africa.

“Our message is that we want to tell Guinean women, all African women, that we can’t just stay as we are,’’ Conde says. “Women need to do everything men do, fight for everything like men. For you, overseas, we want to give a true image of Guinea, and of our culture. And we have a message against cutting.’’

The current performance starts with a story about cutting, says Mamoudou Conde, the group’s (male) artistic director. (Though Conde is a common last name in Guinea, he is also related to Seregbè and a few other members.)

“The show starts with a young girl who is afraid to go through this,’’ Mamoudou Conde says. “She runs from the village but is kidnapped by one of her relatives and taken to the forest.’’ After the procedure, the girl falls ill with an infection and dies.

Mamoudou Conde says all this is presented in a stylized way, so no one in the audience is uncomfortable. But addressing FGM head-on is essential, he says.

“Each of the group members went through this. They do not want to see this happening anymore. They want to speak out through the music, the artistic program and the choreography to fight and eradicate this archaic thing.’’

As for the music and dances, they are not traditional in the sense of belonging to one ethnic group. They merge elements from across Guinea as well as modern themes. This is fitting, considering that Nimbaya has had support from the government of Guinea, which helped give the venture legitimacy.

Even so, Mamoudou Conde says, the group had considerable turnover, especially early, when performers were pressured to withdraw by husbands or relatives. More recently those pressures have abated, he says, as the troupe’s success has earned its members steady incomes.

A sculptor and entrepreneur who has split time between Guinea and the United States for two decades, Mamoudou Conde has served as producer for other troupes, including Les Ballets Africains and Les Percussions de Guinée. But he credits the spread of African drumming in the West for sparking the idea of Nimbaya!

“I could see on tour in other countries that many women would come and take classes,’’ he says. “I heard a discussion in a workshop where a drummer was advising a female that women don’t play the djembe. He said, ‘We don’t know why you guys want to play the drum.’ ’’

Now, the women in Nimbaya play not only drums but also kora, balafon, and even the Malinké flute, another instrument that women almost never perform publicly.

Aicha Conde, another troupe member reached in Conakry, says she plays djembe, balafon and guitar. She reminisces fondly about the warm welcome they have had in such places as Dubai, South Korea, and no less a center of percussion culture than Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.

Those encomiums are a fitting reward for the troupe’s innovation and perseverance in the face of entrenched customs - to say nothing of the logistical difficulties of running a school and launching complex international tours from one of the world’s poorest countries.

“We were never discouraged,’’ Aicha Conde says. “When you truly love something, you will always be able to achieve it.’’

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.

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