Historic Revival

The African Showboyz use their energy and talent to keep traditional cultural elements alive

The African Showboyz are five brothers from the tiny village of Binaba in Ghana, West Africa. With their performances of African drumming, dance and sideshow magic, the brothers Sabbah--Napoleon, Joseph, Isaac, Mosses and J.J.--have captured the attention of West Africa, of Europe and of music and folk-arts festivals throughout the United States.

The African Showboyz will perform for the first time in Tucson this Friday, May 13, at Lucky Street Studios, the headquarters of the Tucson fire-performance troupe Flam Chen.

Presenting the African Showboyz' appearance is The Dambe Project, a nonprofit, Tucson-based African performing-arts group that regularly uses the Lucky Street space for rehearsals and classes.

The African Showboyz are preserving art forms that might otherwise fade away amid the soul-leeching commercialism that accompanies rampant Westernization, says Martin Klabunde, founder and co-director of the Dambe Project.

Klabunde's youth-oriented group, the Dambe Drum Ensemble, will open the show with drumming from Mali and Guinea. Dambe performers have served in residency at Tucson High School two years running and have opened local concerts for the likes of Baaba Maal and Cubanismo.

"What is so special about these guys (the African Showboyz) is that they play instruments that are almost extinct," Klabunde explains. The Showboyz are on a mission to revive interest among young people in traditional West African performing arts.

According to their press kit, the African Showboyz, who range in age from 25 to 32, are best known for using the bunburus rhythm, which they created by blending ancestral instruments such as the kone, sisans, bin bill and bin douk. Bunburus is characterized by swift, loud and vibrant rhythms, drawing inspiration from the music that was in vogue in the northern part of Ghana the turn of the century.

They spice up their traditional offerings of drumming, dance and song with stunts like fire breathing and glass eating.

Performers such as the African Showboyz exist in part as a response to what Klabunde calls a "breakdown of culture" in many African counties.

"All the young men are leaving the villages to go to the cities" in pursuit of the money and possessions hawked by mass media, Klabunde says, leaving a cultural void.

"Through music, song and dance, young Africans are taught the arts and culture, social and gender roles and societal expectations. The history is oral." So when a significant number of members of a generation abandon their villages, the cultural link from one generation to the next is severed, and traditions are lost.

This is especially damaging to a community when one tradition, such as drumming, becomes a symbol in child birthing, naming, marriage and funeral rites. Which is why in some African cultures, drumming is called "ancestor worship," says Klabunde.

Since their modest beginning in 1987, the Showboyz have toured tirelessly in West Africa. Then they went after France and Germany.

Two years ago, the African Showboyz first ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to share their messages of peace and unity with North American audiences. Their U.S. debut came at the 2003 edition of the massive roots and folk-music festival Floyd Fest in Floyd, Va.

Judging from numerous testimonials, audiences regularly are amazed by the energy, joy and positive attitudes of the African Showboyz.

The group has toured the United States extensively, playing from the East Coast to the Dakotas, but this week, they are visiting the Southwest for the first time. In addition to Tucson, they will perform in Sedona and Flagstaff, before heading west for a performance at the third annual Joshua Tree Music Festival on May 14.

They also have toured with the rapper Speech (of Arrested Development fame), as well as collaborating with Femi Kuti, Alpha Blondy and the legendary drumming master Babatunde Olatunji, who died in 2003.

The 'Boyz also appeared in the groundbreaking 2002 movie 1 Giant Leap, a collaborative, feature-length music film fusing examples of diverse music from around the world.

Concerts by the African Showboyz are known to become interactive affairs, in which the audience members are participants, creating a rich metaphor for community. Perhaps more than in a traditional venue, at Lucky Street Studios, the line between performer and observer is likely to become delightfully blurred.

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