STAGE REVIEW : 'Africa, Oye': Drums of Ritual Beat the Message at Pantages

Times Theater Critic

The compilers of "Africa, Oye!" have noted that we wouldn't be able to see some of these performances unless we drove into the jungle in a Jeep and waited for the village chief to die.

That's easy to believe when the Mbulie-Hemba group emerges from the wings at the Pantages. They are men, but they are dressed as women--painted female shamans, rattling gourds and pounding a drum that looks like a huge triangular envelope. The program says that their dance is about "the secrets of nature."

Like a Hopi dance, then? Yes, very like one. Which is why this big African revue leaves the American viewer with mixed feelings. On the one hand, some of the performances are awesome. On the other hand, there's a certain vulgarity operating here.

The vulgarity doesn't come from the stage. The performers--dancers, drummers, singers, acrobats, most of them from Central and Western Africa--display dignity and grace.

The vulgarity is ours, and promoter Mel Howard's. 'Yes," we say in effect to groups from non-Western cultures, "we would be charmed to see your exotic native dances. But do try to keep them down to 15 minutes or so. After that, it all begins to look like the same thing."

Howard and his partner Michel Boudon cheerfully admit that that's the program behind the program here: to provide lots of contrast and variety, not to get stuck with an act that takes too long to "build." The masks, the costumes and the steps will be authentic, but nothing will go on too long.

What, though, if the essence of a certain kind of performance is to cast a spell, often by repeating a pattern until the listener is swept up in it, and finds himself liberated from time? An "excerpt" from this is a contradiction in terms.

Again, what if a culture reserves certain rituals for certain special occasions, occasions where everyone participates in the ritual? Is a funeral procession to be looked at as a show by strangers who don't know a funeral from a baptism?

In Africa, that is to say, performance isn't necessarily show biz. But that's not the impression when you put Batwa pygmies, Nigerian dancers, Guinea drummers and a big rock star from Zaire on the same bill. These are not all "acts," and shouldn't be presented as if they were. A bit more humility, somehow, is in order. As with all tourist shows, "Africa Oye!" has moments when you're a little ashamed to be there.

The other side of the coin is that "Africa Oye!" does supply some vivid sights and sounds; does remind us what a vast continent Africa is, and does provide a link between its performance tradition and our own. When the family in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at the L.A. Theatre Center goes into its Saturday night juba session, it's a memory of some of the dancing to be seen here.

Also, to be fair, some African performance is show biz. The skewed somersaults and unmotivated backflips of the Guinea acrobats are obviously designed to make the viewer gasp--to wish that he could do that. This group is completely at home on the stage of the grand old Pantages Theatre, vaudeville's home away from home.

So are the drummers from Guinea, big fellows who broadcast an amazing barrage of signals around the house, conversing with their instruments and flying hands. The conversation seems cheerful, but one wouldn't, somehow, care to be the object of it. (The link is with our great jazz drummers, but there's more of a sense of purpose on view here.)

The evening's most memorable sound is that of the alghaita, a wind instrument used by the Kanouri troupe of Niger. It has the blood-stirring snarl of the bagpipe, without the maintenance problems. One also thinks of the sound that calls the Moslem to prayer. Africa is mosques as well as thatched roofs.

It's also high-rises. Papa Wemba ends the show, a "now" singer who specializes in something called rumba rock. He calls everybody out for a curtain call, and the montage is amazing--shamans, pygmies, tall totem figures, bare-legged gamines, a stage full of Africa. In the end, you have to say 'Oye!"

Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinees Saturdays at 2 and Sundays at 3. Closes July 2. Tickets $10-$30. 6233 Hollywood Blvd. (213) 410-1062.

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