L’école fula flute is an initiative of musician Sylvain Leroux that began when he invented the chromatic tambin by adding three more finger holes to the existing three-hole tambin (Fula flute) rendering the instrument capable of playing classical, jazz, or any style of music beyond the beautiful but limited traditional Phrygian scale. This gave him the idea that it could be used to teach the fundamentals of music theory to children in Guinea.
In Conakry in early 2013, looking to test his ideas, he was recommended to the Centre Tyabala Theatre de Guinée, an alternative arts-in-education program that had been in operation since 2009 giving classes in theater and music along with fundamental elementary subjects. They welcomed Sylvain and for three weeks he started to apply his ideas. The kids immediately fell in love with the tambin, the sound of which has deep resonance among Guineans, and, despite the early headaches that come with beginning flute playing, they eagerly pushed forward.
That result gave Sylvain motivation to raise the funds needed with an ultimately successful Kickstarter project and in 2014 spent four months working with the students at the Centre. The kids made tremendous progress on the instrument and an appreciable one in music literacy. This culminated with the recording of an album/CD (“Les Enfants de Tyabala” on Mulatta Records) released later that year and a one-hour film with the same title.
At the film premiere, a generous audience member was moved to offer financial support for a traditional flute teacher to continue the kid’s instruction while Sylvain was away. Sylvain then recruited his old teacher Mamadi Mansaré, retired veteran of the world-famous Ballets Africains and one of the most well-known and respected flutists in Guinea. He began teaching in 2015 and found that the students were enthusiastic about learning everything he had to give, this made him very happy and, after many years of witnessing the flute tradition dwindle, gave him hope for the future. Mamadi has ever since continued to teach weekly.
In 2016, another teacher, Bouba Mbeng, joined the school, a great percussionist, singer and ngoni player with deep knowledge of traditional music and a gentle and generous soul who assiduously developed a bond of trust with the kids teaching them songs and arrangements which little-by-little developed into a deep repertoire.
Meanwhile, the Centre Tyabala had been operating in a giant industrial hangar that had been repurposed as a State community facility. They shared this space with other youth groups, dance companies, martial-arts classes, printing shop, storage, parking lot, etc. However, in the summer of 2016 the State in its wisdom decided to transform it into a sewing training facility and with a week’s notice, everyone was evicted. Our school found itself working outdoors and many classes fell by the wayside although the flute and percussion classes continued despite the heavy monsoon rains.
Back in the US and appalled by this situation, Sylvain conducted a fund-raising campaign that realized nearly $7000. Thanks to that the activities were moved to a 4-room house in an enclosed courtyard at the end of a quiet street where they since have continued.
After that, feeling more secure and in control, a stronger emphasis was put on “alphabetization” or an elementary education, reading, writing, arithmetic, social sciences, civics, etc. The health of students is of a primordial concern, they are fed daily, classes take place from 8:20 am until 5:30 pm with breaks. Young students were recruited and the faculty grew with the addition of music theory, kora, and Fula flute teachers.
The students are often called upon to perform concerts and plays for the community as the original vocation of the Centre Tyabala is oriented to the Theater Arts but the addition of the Fula flute to their repertoire has given them a special and much appreciated character.
This year the school has received many interesting visitors, great artists appearing at the International Jazz Festival (FIZZ), Fula flute players from Europe and American filmmakers, all of whom were afterwards very enthusiastic about what they experienced there.
In 2019 a new recording was made and released called “TYABALA” (Mulatta Records 042) which features the results of the wonderful work taking place at l’école fula flute. There are three legs that hold this initiative together: the involvement of the people who make this happen daily, the acceptance of the community on the ground in Guinea and the generosity of supporters around the world and, as long as these elements are present, l’école fula flute will thrive.
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