Conakry, capital of the West African country Guinea, gained notoriety during last year’s tragic Ebola outbreak, but its happier claim to fame is music and movement. The small nation is an epicenter for African dance and drums and is home to the continent’s most famous dance troupe, Les Ballets Africains. This month, the athletic, high-flying dance style, deep bass of dundun drums, and slaps of djembes that enliven Guinea’s concrete dance halls move to Loveland’s Sunrise Ranch during Camp Merveilles (August 11 to 17).
The weeklong African drumming and dance camp brings together some of the world’s top performers for classes and demonstrations that are open to the public. Among this year’s featured guests: Guinea’s Youssouf Koumbassa, whose dancing image was projected five stories tall on the outside wall of the New York State Theatre in 2007; Ismael “Bonfils” Kouyaté, who performed in the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical Fela!; and Camp Merveilles founder and renowned African drummer and dancer Fara Tolno, who has played with B.B. King, Neil Young, and Burning Spear. Aftermoving to Colorado from Guinea nearly 16 years ago, Tolno yearned to reconnect with the talented dancers and musicians from his homeland who had dispersed to France, Iceland, New York, and California to pursue their music careers. So the 42-year-old dance instructor at Denver’s Cleo Parker Robinson Dance—a nonprofit performing arts school—established the camp in 2003. “There is a legacy here,” Tolno says. “We are honoring our teachers and honoring how we used to play together.”
The artists are also creating a rare opportunity for Coloradans to immerse themselves in African culture. The camp’s lineup includes traditional song and dance classes, in which attendees can learn the slow, sultry Yankadi full-moon dance or how to play the complex layers of the upbeat Macrou drum rhythm.
There are also history lessons and conversations about African culture’s place in America.
Camp Merveilles shakes the seriousness on Saturday night during a public performance called a “spectac” that features a lively mix of West African music and dance.
Last year, the show erupted with all the energy of a Conakry street party as fans rushed the stage to slap dollars on the sweaty foreheads of drummers. Campers needn’t worry about equipment, though: The only things you’ll need are your bare (dancing) feet.
If You Go
When: August 11 to 17
Where: Sunrise Ranch, Loveland
What: Course options range from drop-in dance and drum classes ($20) to full-day ($100) or weeklong ($675) sessions. All ages and skill levels are welcome.
You’ll need: A good attitude, comfy clothes, and bare feet for dancing. Drums are available to rent (from $5).
Feel-good moment: Camp Merveilles benefits the Kissidugu Foundation, Tolno’s nonprofit, which will use the funds to help build a school for young dancers and musicians in Guinea so they don’t feel forced to leave the country to find work. Last year Camp Merveilles raised nearly $5,000.
—Inset photos courtesy of Camp Merveilles