BEIRUT: Tales are a foundational part of human culture. Listening to stories helps children dream and fantasize. They’re also useful for grownups, who sometimes seek out wholesome ways to slough-off their daily worries.
We all need to dream a little. Beirut benefits from periodic storytelling transfusion, thanks to the Festival International du Conte et du Monodrame (International Festival of Tales and Monodramas). Now in its 14th edition, this yearly celebration of stories will be staged over six days next week at the Crypt – the ad-hoc exhibition and performance space in the basement of St. Joseph Church.
Suitable for children and adults, this year’s edition focuses on Africa and African storytellers. Cameroon’s Saidou Abatcha will be along, along with Senegalese yarn-spinners Souleymane Mbodj and Boubacar Ndiaye, Congo’s Abdon Fortune and Algeria’s Rachid Akbal.
This all-African program suggests the oral storytelling tradition is still alive and well in African cultural life. More than merely diverting the kids, it provides an intermediary between fantasy and formal education in local tradition and culture.
In remarks published to introduce this year’s event, festival artistic director Jihad Darwiche wrote that for this year’s edition organizers selected “storytellers from the new generation, who live in modernity but who keep relations with previous generations.”
The storytellers in this year’s program all meld facets of contemporary storytelling with traditional vision, enabling a wider audience to understand and identify with the tales being related.
The Crypt’s relative tranquil isolation promises to make it the perfect place to embrace storytelling prowess.
Storyteller and comedian Saidou Abatcha is a veteran of last year’s event. He specializes in adapting his text, and the African traditions from which they spring, to the culture of his audience. Something of a fabulist, Abatcha mingles tales of sentient animals and humans in order to convey morals of tolerance and social solidarity.
A different type of storyteller, Rachid Akbal has a performance style that was initially formed by theater but later adapted to suit his own needs, one that, like Abatcha, promises to combine tradition with modernity.
Akbal’s tales are not only imaginative, but the atmosphere he creates embraces his listeners within a theatrical bubble. Inspired by daily anecdotes, he makes observations of society which give his tales a concrete and palpable aspect meant to speak to his audience.
Abdon Fortune’s thirst for storytelling originated when he wanted to revive the oral tradition of the Congo. He was awarded the prize for best actor at Kinshasa’s Festival CARE in 1995.
For the last eight years, he has been organizing the International Festival RIAPL (Itinerary Encounters of the Arts of Speaking and Language) in the Congolese capital. Recently he was nominated an expert at the International Commission of Francophone Theater. No doubt his years of experience will amaze his audience at the Crypt.
Souleymane Mbodj may be alone among these storytellers in folding music into his spoken-word performances. He was still a youngster when initiated into storytelling custom and its accompanying instrumentation. His tales not only transmit African culture, but also provide an entertaining musicology lesson.
Monodrame organizers have termed Boubacar Ndiaye a “guardian of memories.” His work combines facets of individual creativity with memory, personal history and further research, which gives him an unusually broad canvas upon which to work.
More than the festival’s other performers, perhaps, Ndiaye is uniquely adept at sharing Wolof cultural traditions with his audience, as well as his vision of his society and its unstoppable process of transformation.
Those habitués of this festival will know that tradition demands that the event conclude with an event combining the talents of all its participants. This year, too, the much-loved Concours des Menteurs (Competition of Liars) will reunite all the storytellers on the festival’s final day.
Working from ideas provided by the audience, the players will tell stories one after another in an enjoyable and friendly competition. More than merely providing inspiration, the spectators will be given the opportunity to be performers themselves – at least for one evening.
The Festival International du Conte et du Monodrame will be held at the Crypt of St. Joseph Church on March 12-17. For more information, please call 01-202-422. Tickets available at Librairie Antoine and Monnot Theater.