FolkFire Articles

March / April 1998

  • What Can FolkFire Do For You?
  • St. Louis African Chorus
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  • What Can FolkFire Do For You?

    by Andrew Limanni
    Here is a summary of services FolkFire provides--all listed in one handy place. We’ll continue to run a box with this information in each issue.
    St. Louis African Chorus
    The St. Louis African Chorus (SLAC) is open to individuals from all racial and ethnic groups who desire to share in the philosophy of promoting peace and love through the arts. Diversity is strongly encouraged and embraced. SLAC is made up of 50 young people and adults from the Greater St. Louis area, including singers, drummers and dancers. The Children’s Choir of African Music, founded this summer, has twenty-five members ages 10 to 13. A dedicated force of parents and other non-performers support the operations of the organization. Participation is an opportunity to learn, work, sing and play with a wonderful group of people. We believe that knowledge and shared experience lead to understanding, acceptance, love and joy, and as we pass on these gifts in our performances and our daily lives—ultimately, to a stronger community.
    The SLAC was formed in 1994 by founder and Artistic Director, Fred Onovwerosuoke, in Ghana, West Africa. His original mission was to increase public awareness of African cultural heritage through the performances of traditional and contemporary African music and other art forms.The aim here is to preserve and encourage traditional values and the use of African languages and musical styles among youths in the African Diaspora.
    To a casual observer, the SLAC may appear to be a group that simply sings in African languages—but we are much more than that. One of our main challenges is to find a better way, in addition to our concerts, to explain why our activities often include art exhibitions, dance classes, and language education.
    While art forms in the Western world are often separated into distinct disciplines, such as choral music, instrumental music, visual-art exhibition, dance, opera, theater, etc.—in Africa, this is not so. Africa boasts many varied choral styles, but in traditional festivals, celebrations and other cultural events all the arts come together as one. Performance of choral music in this context is often incomplete without some form of percussive accompaniment, exquisite dancing, elaborate costuming, visual art display, masquerade and audience-performer interaction. To maintain the aesthetic value of the performing arts in an African setting, each of these components must play a significant role.
    It is no secret that many modern African art groups have become westernized. Thankfully, we do still have a few examples of groups that have remained true practitioners of Africa’s performing arts—groups like Ballet National du Senegal, Les Merveilles du Guinea and to some extent, Ipi Tombi and Ladysmiih Black Mambazo.
    The fact that most of the members of the St. Louis African Chorus are Americans (who, when they join, often have little knowledge about Africa) makes broad-based education a key component of our activities. It is for this reason that in addition to learning the songs, we have language classes for members to become familiar with the phonetics, pronunciation and diphthongs common to many African languages. We also have dance and choreography sessions where they learn basic steps and gestures used in choral performances. Through our exhibitions of visual art members and the general public become acquainted with African lifestyles. These components are absolutely necessary in order to properly represent the unique art form that we promote.
    As they come together our performances often become joyous and spontaneous musical journeys—opportunities to experience the wealth and magic of Africa’s choral music. The compelling music engages audiences to move, clap and sing, eventually evolving into a performer-audience interplay that recreates scenes from traditional African life.
    In each of the four years of its existence, the St. Louis African Chorus has consistently made progress. Beginning with a performance of chants at a benefit concert for the Habitat for Humanity in 1994, members have gained confidence. We have added gestures, dance steps, drumming, costuming, staging, audience-interaction and symbolic representation through visual art. We have brought artists from Gambia, South Africa and Ghana to perform in area schools and to help train our members. Each concert is an opportunity for growth for our members, and brings us closer to realizing how best to represent the performing arts of Africa.
    Next season is a promising one for our organization. Concerts are scheduled in several locations in the St. Louis area. Upcoming events include the Sheldon Concert Hall on April 14, a second joint-concert with the St. Louis Symphony Children’s Choirs on June 14, a July 26 Songs & Stories of the Rainforest concert with storytellers Gladys Coggswell and Nymah Kumah and the African Music Conference planned for October 16 - 20, 1998.
    The African Tour scheduled for June 18, 1998, which is largely planned to be self-supporting, will enable our members to educate and enrich themselves in African performing arts, cultures and lifestyles. The tour will take the SLAC to Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana. It is our hope that we will achieve two goals from this tour. First, by visiting villages to interact with local people we will experience the cultures we have been promoting in the United States; and second, with concerts scheduled in Africa’s big cities, we hope to spur African youths to take pride in their cultural heritage.
    This season we have a new program which brings our activities to areas under-served by the arts community. Charity performances will be held for people in nursing homes and other types of group homes. In collaboration with Bonnie Brayshaw, a singer with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, we will schedule rehearsals and mini-concerts at the Emmaus Group Homes for Developmentally Disabled Adults in St. Charles, and at Doorways, an assisted living facility for people with HIV or AIDS.
    In order to realize a more practical partnership with local schools, churches and other organizations a touring group is being formed. We believe that collaborations such as these will greatly enhance our ongoing efforts to reach diverse audiences.
    The African Sanctus, a mass for a traditional western choir, African choir and dancers by David Fanshawe, is part of our plans for next year. This project is planned to bring together a multicultural and intergenerational group of singers who will be drawn from area choirs like the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, St. Louis Symphony Children’s Choir and In-Unison Chorus, as well as church choirs from the area.
    Other future plans include bringing more artists from Africa to help our organization provide the varied repertoire that is needed to truly represent all of Africa. In the next five years our educational program should expand into the proposed Center for African Arts and Culture.
    Dreams of performing at the Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, a European tour, and a world tour are not totally out of the question!
    Call 652-6800 for further information and a performance schedule.