La Grande was Grand!

This weekend we took a beautiful ride through the Columbia River Gorge, past the Dalles, landing in La Grande, a town located east of the Blue Mountains and southeast of Pendleton. Several months ago WACAI was contacted by Arts Center East, or ACE, a nonprofit arts education organization founded in 1977 to partner with them to bring the cultural arts of Guinea to this town of approximately 13,000 people.

When we arrived at Art Center East and entered the wonderfully spacious community gallery, we were greeted by a group of over 30 participants arranged in a huge circle in the center of the space, each with a drum in front of them ready to go! Alseny got started with some basic technique like body posture, how to hold the drum, and how to produce the three basic sounds of “slap, tone, and bass” by hitting the drum in a certain spot with a particular hand position. He moved on to introducing Kuku, a traditional drum rhythm from Bela in Guinea, West Africa played at festive occasions, including, but not limited to weddings and baby naming ceremonies. The drummers were keen learners who in only an hour’s time learned the Kuku’s signal which tells when to start, stop, or change parts, the first and second drum accompaniment parts, and solo phrases that included three different rhythmic segments. Participants did an awesome job following along by playing the different parts together in unison while Alseny went around the big circle giving pro tips and high fives to everyone there!

The following morning was bright and sunny as we headed downtown to the Farmer’s Market in Max Square which was bustling with food venders, fruit sellers, crafters, and families and friends who gathered at the most popular community event of the week. The stage was covered and situated under a nice long shadow which blocked the morning’s rays nicely and was pleasantly cool. The performance area has a built-in amphitheater which was already flanked with spectators eager to for the morning entertainment to begin, but really filled up with folks when Alseny started off the show with one of his drum calls which is true to the Guinean tradition of gathering folks together. The performance that ensued consisted of singing, dancing, various traditional percussion pieces and included cultural narration of what was being performed so that the audience could learn something in addition to being entertained.

Afterwards kids from the audience were invited up to the stage to learn some dance steps, participate in some movement games, and play on the drums provided by ACE’s African Drumming Ensemble. The audience participation culminated with parents joining their children on stage for an open dance jam facilitated by Andrea while some community members who attended the drum class the night before shared what they learned and drummed alongside of Alseny and Papa. The La Grande community was very engaged in everything WACAI presented and we are thinking about ways to make it possible for us to return by doing a joint project with Eastern Oregon University and some community groups in the area, including ACE’s Artist in Residence program.

These events were made possible by Art Center East through a partnership with the Oregon Folklife Network, an organization that recognizes Yansane as one of Oregon’s Culture Keepers. Funding for the workshop is provided in part by support from the Oregon Folklife Network (administered by the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History) as well as from the Oregon Cultural Trust, Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Historical Society, and the National Endowment for the Arts.