African drummer fuses tradition and culture into music and movement | SteamboatToday.com

African drummer fuses tradition and culture into music and movement

— It's not always easy to open your heart and mind to something new.

“When you open your heart and are vulnerable, you can learn more about a culture and have fun,” said Fara Tolno, visiting performer and dance/drum teacher who was born in Guinea, West Africa. “You just have to let go and be free in the moment.”

On Monday night, I sat on the Strings Music Pavilion stage with about 30 other people, learning how to play the djembe drums during a 1 1/2 hour class. Shortly after, I fully immersed myself again in a West African dance class energized by live drummers.

These classes gave the community a snapshot of what to expect for Tolno’s show Tuesday morning at Strings and also provided a bit of history behind the music and movement.

This isn’t Fara Tolno’s first visit to Steamboat. He has been coming here for a little over a decade but this time, he and his group, Kissidugu, a percussion and dance theater ensemble, have some newly infused energy to share with the town.

This past Saturday, the group released their new album, "Binye II: Respect."

"Teaching this type of dance is important because it helps people grow more in depth with their body and be connected, aware and more confident of themselves," said Tolno about this form of movement he has been studying and sharing with communities all over the world. "It also helps them be free and relaxed and cure a lot of the stress they may have."

I am not a percussionist by any means and probably shouldn't ever play the drums in front of people, but I learned to really appreciate the fact that this type of music isn't just a solitary form of rhythm. It's a melody, a mindset and movement all in one.

As we progressed through various drum variations with Tolno's guidance, he would have us repeat the beat in song so we could hear ourselves say it and move our body along with it.

"I've always had a great respect for drummers, but to be inside the music, it's completely different," said Anjali Austin, who also was taking the djembe drum class for the first time. "The multifaceted rhythms get you clicking in a different way outside of what tends to be the mainstream of that one droning beat. With all of these multiple beats in this form of drumming, it's just so full."

Movement was the key element for this lesson. It helped the rhythm we attempted to follow and allowed our bodies to relax.

"As a dancer, we learn things in a way that makes it a physical or visceral action with movement," Austin said. "But to be able to play it on the drums and physicalize it that way, it gives a different understanding, almost like a cellular understanding of what's going on."

Only taking a few dance classes here and there, I really had no idea what to do. But then I realized, it didn't make a difference. All that mattered was to listen to the beat of the drums and just go with it.

I had no idea that a West African dance class could be such a workout. Everyone was moving at such a rapid pace, it didn't matter if sweat was dripping off of their faces. They had smiles on their faces and were in the moment of the music, following Tolno's movements and flowing with the beat of the drums.

For Tolno, who has playing the djembe since age 9, this is his passion that comes from his cultural heritage.

"It connects me to my source and makes me feel alive," he said."The movement style makes you look deeper into your body and connect with the whole being of who you are."

The Guinean style of dance is high energy with acrobatic movements.

In Steamboat, African dance may be hidden from the mainstream methods of dance exercise but the class Monday night proved that there is definitely a culture for it here. This fall, Colorado Mountain College will offer an African dance class taught by Beth Boyd and live drumming by Cary Kamperschroer at the Depot Art Center. It will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays from Aug. 28 to Dec. 11.

Learning dance takes diligence and a great teacher. Luckily, Tolno knew exactly what his students needed and was willing to break down the movements of each dance.

"To me, he is very powerful teacher," Austin said. "He is very accessible and encouraging. So for this being my first time, I'm really appreciative of his energy, and it's obvious he is a very special teacher. To have my first experience with someone like this really makes a difference."

Tolno not only taught me a new form of music and rhythm, but I also found myself learning about a new culture.

"It's not just a dance," said Jennie Lay, who has been practicing African dance for about 16 years and has taken part in many of Tolno's classes. "It's the music, the stories, the culture; the dance is not an isolated piece. It comes from stories and lessons of men and women who grew up in this culture. It's important to learn because it's irreplaceable."

A live, intuitively transporting experience awaits all those who will attend this show engrained in a longstanding culture of music and movement.