At a Tuesday afternoon West African dance class at The Center for Movement Arts, students ease into a warm-up routine of stretches, hip rolls and shimmies led by Fara Tolno. The live drummers channel the afternoon's mood and movement as they ease into a rhythmic groove to guide the aspiring West African dancers.
Maputo Mensah from Ghana is playing the dun-dun and djembe. He energetically pounds away at the large drum, which he plays with sticks while standing up. Each deep strike of the goatskin drum head is accompanied by Tolno's strong, fluid movements and the bob of his small, tight, shoulder-length dreadlocks.
Tolno grins as dancers grasp new moves and rhythms. If Tolno is exhausted at the end of a long day teaching, no one can tell. The energy is high.
Tolno never skips a beat.
Robin Getter marvels at the fortune of having such a depth of musical talent to accompany the class at her small community dance studio.
"His energy is just incredible," Getter said. "They are so alive, so well-versed in the polyrhythms, and where the beats are supposed to be, and what's supposed to be happening, that they can mess around like crazy, and it doesn't knock them off. It just makes them better."
Getter should know. She has taught West African dance for nearly two decades in Steamboat. She has a loyal following of students that spans generations. When she needs inspiration, new material and a dose of the "real thing," Getter often visits Boulder, a hub for immigrant West African dancers and drummers, to get her fix. It was here that she met Tolno and Mensah, a surprise guest artist who came to Steamboat with Tolno this week.
Tolno, 31, is a master dancer and drummer from Guinea, West Africa. Before moving to Boulder, Tolno was the lead drummer for Les Merveilles, a traditional Guinean dance and drum ensemble affiliated with the renowned Les Ballet Africains.
Today, he devotes his energy to spreading Guinean arts and culture among communities in Colorado and around the world. A performer, choreographer and recording artist, Tolno collaborates with a variety of West African artists living in Boulder, where he teaches Guinean dance and music lessons.
As an artist in residence in Steamboat for two weeks, Tolno has been busy teaching dance, drum and traditional Guinean instrument workshops at The Center for Movement Arts while helping Getter and Wendy Smith Mikelsons lead the Kaleidoscope Arts Immersion Program for 6- through 16-year-olds.
The workshop culminates in the performance of Demede Fare, which means "kids dance" in Sousou, Tolno's native language. The group performs twice Tuesday at the Strings in the Mountains and once Saturday at Art in the Park.
Tolno rarely misses an opportunity to give out a cultural lesson or two, always delivered with his enormous, generous smile. This has gained Tolno a faithful following of students such as Getter and some of her seasoned West African dancers, who often travel back and forth from the Front Range to take his classes and attend his summer workshops.
Despite his devoted following, Tolno made it clear that he is careful to keep things in perspective.
"I am good. But I am always humble, because the humbleness gives me who I am today. If I was not humble, I would never be who I am today," Tolno said in a thick Guinean lilt that has faint French undertones.
Tolno has lived in the United States for six years, more than two-thirds of which he has spent in Colorado. In addition to the other six languages he speaks, Tolno says he has learned all of his English since he first arrived in New York. He marveled with an air of disgust at how few Americans speak anything other than English -- undoubtedly an impetus behind the songs Steamboat children will be singing in French, Sousou and Malenke languages during performances this weekend.
Tolno emphasized the strong spirituality he finds in his traditional Guinean music and movement.
"Drumming is a connection. When you are drumming, sometimes you're not even doing it by yourself. Sometimes you don't know how you can play for that long. The spirit takes over you," Tolno said.
This is a calling Tolno felt when he was 9. The son of a hotel director and the middle of five boys from a noble class, Tolno was not destined to play the drums. He said his family is of a class that "teaches people about life in Guinea, people who sit in the office, go to school and read a lot," but not performers.
"When I start drumming, my parents don't like it. I had a big problem with my father. Huge problem," Tolno said.
Tolno started playing drums with his friends every day after school, but he had to hide the drumming from his family.
"My dad, he used to look for me in the area and if I'm drumming what he'd do is break the drums. Break everything," he said. "But I stick to my word. I told them this is what I'm going to do."
Tolno once studied biology, and his mother envisioned her son as a blossoming doctor, but he chose to dance and play music, instead.
Now he said he aspires to be the kind of teacher he found in Kemoko Sano, the aging former director and choreographer of Les Ballet Africains and his revered French-speaking mentor.
"He taught me a lot about the story of Africa, the story of the music, what we do in the culture, what we are doing. He taught me a lot of my formation -- to be who I am and who we are in performance and in teaching," Tolno said.
Today Tolno is passing these lessons on to a younger generation -- be it a growing crowd of Coloradans, people he never imagined passing his legacy on to when he was a boy in Guinea.
"My thing is working with the kids, because I started working with the kids in New York City. I love to share with the kids and expose them to different culture and to speak different language while they're little," Tolno said.
Logan Banning, 8, was one of Tolno's star pupils at last year's arts immersion workshop. Banning, who got his first pint-sized djembe when he was 5 years old, said he couldn't wait to study with Tolno again. Since last year, he has a new drum and lots of new rhythms he learned from playing at the regular Thursday night dance class at Getter's studio. Banning is shy, but his excitement overcame his self-consciousness as he demonstrated his commendable skill on the djembe.
Demede Fare will feature small vignettes, in which the children will have their own mini "orchestras" playing songs on traditional Guinean log drums called krins, stringed instruments called koras and several styles of drums. Between songs and dances there will be short skits telling African legends.
"It's pretty spectacular. Watching them dance last year on stage together, without a teacher, led by Fara's drumming -- it's pretty deep," Getter said referring to "Mody and the Dance of Life," the 2003 arts immersion program she and Smith Mikelsons also co-taught with Tolno. "He works hard. He's aggressive, and he wants to spread what he knows and share what he knows. He loves America because he has the opportunity for that."
But Tolno never loses sight of Guinea or the big dream for his family's village that always beats in his heart. He wants to have an exchange program someday, where he takes people home with him to do beneficial projects, like putting in a phone tower, while teaching them the local language, culture and customs.
He wants American children to come with their families, pick the fruit from the trees and see how children really survive in Guinea.
He wants to end single-minded misconceptions about sickness, hunger and poverty in Africa.
"If we teach the kids who are growing up today, growing up tomorrow, they will learn what Africa is really like," Tolno said.
Demede Fare is one small step in that direction