The region commonly referred to as West Africa is a land of living history. Within its mountains, coastlines and deserts live the people of 16 countries representing countless ethnic groups. Look deep into the region's past and you will discover empires, some dating to the sixth century.
Defining that history through the years has been music, whether it was delivered by storytelling nomads known as Griots or through the mix of traditional and contemporary voices that have given rise to such esteemed West African artists as Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and the late Ali Farka Touré. Those performers have not only demystified cultures that can't help but seem foreign to American artists, but they also awakened interest worldwide in the music of Mali, Senegal, Benin, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and the other lands that make up West Africa.
Add to that list the name of Bamba Dembele, artistic director for the Song and Dance Ensemble of West Africa, which performs at the Singletary Center for the Arts on Thursday as part of the Alltech Festival. For 28 years, the group has taken the rhythms and traditions of West Africa across the globe.
"The music is a combination of many traditions from many ethnic groups," Dembele said. "The dance represents the rhythm of the music. In one piece, a man dances with scarves to imitate a bird. The piece is called Sinkola, meaning The Bird of Power.
"This music has enjoyed a very warm reception. Every night the audience is on its feet."
A conversation with Dembele underscored the immediate difference in African and American cultures — namely, language. Dembele's first language is Bambara. Spoken primarily in Mali, the country from which most of the ensemble members hail, Bambara also is the native tongue of a West African ethnic group of the same name. For this story, two interpreters were required. Dembele spoke Bambara to an interpreter who translated his comments to French, which was finally translated into English by a second interpreter.
Estimating how accurately questions and answers were expressed in this kind of party-line communication is difficult, but language, Dembele asserted, is no boundary in expressing the heritage behind the ensemble's music.
"Even if audiences don't understand the exact words, the music is still a good means to communicate. It gives a sense of Mali and West Africa to audiences that are curious."
Dembele is a veteran of the Super Rail Band, a popular Malian music group with a history similar to that of the Song and Dance Ensemble of West Africa.
The Super Rail Band gave rise to West African singer Salif Keita. The Song and Dance Ensemble at one time included vocalist Oumou Sangare and the celebrated kora instrumentalist Toumani Diabate.
Both bands were formed in 1970 with government support to revive, perform and promote Malian and West African culture. In many ways, its means of delivering music is similar to that of the Griots, the tribal elders who, generations earlier, were given the responsibility of preserving oral history and traditions through stories, songs and poems.
"The Griot is the man who keeps the tradition, who keeps it alive," Dembele said. "He is the storyteller, the keeper of the oral communication. Many of the songs we do come from the tradition of the Griot."
For Thursday's performance at the Singletary Center, Dembele and the ensemble will perform Man dingo music on the harplike kora, a 21-string instrument with a hollow gourd at its base; the lute-like ngoni; and the marimba-like balafon as well as on the more familiar djembe hand drum. Also planned are Griot songs performed by a female trio that outline women's roles in Malian society.
"Instruments like the kora and balafon are all part of the Mandingo tradition," Dembele said. "All of these instruments complement each other. The kora is an especially important in the ensemble to create the more melodious sounds. But you need the balafon, the ngoni, all of the other instruments to make the full sound of the music."
That resulting music is the essence of West Africa's living history. It is the means that will provide a home in the Bluegrass, at least for an evening, for the musical traditions of Mali.
"Music brings the world together," Dembele said. "It is the best communication."