Although Mali is land-locked in French West Africa, over 15 years ago, the nation found a conduit for sharing its rich culture with the world — Rex Chequer.
Hoping to change the Western World’s image of Africa as a wild and “uncivilized” continent, Chequer set out to find the oral historians — the griots or jalas — who carried 800 years of stories, music, dance and the visual arts of the Manding (or Mande) people.
Once he found those story-tellers, musicians and artisans, Chequer organized the performing troupe Manding Jata, which will be in concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, as part of the CTAC Live series hosted by the Chisholm Trail Arts Council.
Every inch of the stage in the Simmons Center auditorium will be part of the “classroom,” during a performance that features singing, unique instrumentation and dance, masquerade, acrobatics and a little bit of magic.
“Once I got into the cultures of the Yoruba and Ewe-fon cultures, and from there the Manding, I became totally enamored,” Chequer recalled from his home in British Columbia. “The initial contact point for me was ‘kora’ music, one of the primary instruments of Manding culture.”
The kora is a 21-stringed instrument that has a high, light sound, in contrast to the deeper tones of other Manding instruments, like the balaphon, a mellifluous xylophone with rosewood keys atop hollow gourds.
In the Manding musical ensemble, the kora and balaphon are enhanced by the sounds of many different drums and other percussive possibilities, such as bells and the shekere, a large gourd strung with beads.
It wasn’t surprising the instrumentation of central West Africa drew Chequer’s attention, he’s been on a musical exploration trip most of his life.
A professional piano player since his teens, the Canadian based musician became interested in the African-American genres of blues, gospel and R&B. Chequer later moved into Latin jazz, both Afro-Cuban and Brazilian.
Exploring for the roots of those rhythms, Chequer discovered the music of Mali, which was the sprawling, culturally-progressive Manding Empire.
In 1996, he began sharing those discoveries with the rest of the world.
“In the Western World, we know about Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, the Chinese dynasties, the Roman Empire and the western and eastern Angola cultures, but we know little to nothing about this,” he said. “The 800-year history of the Manding Empire and the African history that extends back for millenniums is an amazing, incredible story that is still largely unknown.”
During Manding Jata’s performance, the story-songs are interspersed with narrative and mime, drum interludes and breathtaking sequences of dance and gymnastics.
“After everything is said and done, it’s ultimately an engaging culture experience,” Chequer emphasized. “It’s not learning, as much as experiencing the living legacy of Manding.”
With corporate backing from First Bank & Trust Co. of Duncan, in addition to the evening performance, CTAC Live is also presenting a free afternoon matinee performance of Manding Jata for students from selected grade levels in Duncan’s school district.
Advance tickets for the evening performance are on sale at the Chisholm Trail Arts Council office, 717 W. Willow, Suite 6, or at the Simmons Center.
Tickets are also available by calling 580-252-4160 or online at www.chisholmtrailarts.com. Special rates for groups of 20 or more are available.
Contributors to CTAC Live are the Oklahoma Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Mid-America Arts Alliance, McCasland Foundation, National Rural Water Association, Duncan Noon Lions Club, KCCU “The Classic FM” 89.3 at Cameron University and the Simmons Center through a Community Spirit Grant.
Other corporate/business sponsors are Bank of Commerce of Duncan and Arvest Bank of Duncan.