Nigel Williamson tracks down the Nigerian schoolchildren who thrill audiences worldwide with their moves and music
The Ekemeni Theatre Troupe Royal Festival Hall, London, tomorrow, 2.15pm To find the remarkable child drummers and dancers of the Ekemeni Theatre Troupe requires a six-hour flight from London to Lagos, an internal flight for a further hour to Calabar, deep in the Niger river delta, then a tortuous two-hour journey to Uyo by road; or what's left of the road, which is little more than a deeply rutted track in some places after a heavy rainy season.
The region - known as Akwa Ibom - was declared part of Biafra in the country's disastrous civil war in the late 1960s and suffered badly. Its natural oil reserves have speeded its recovery, but even if the land is relatively rich, the people remain poor. As we drive into Uyo, the poverty is pitiful. The children of the Ekemeni troupe come from remote villages where life is even harsher than in the town. As artistic director and choreographer Patrick Idiong explains, if they were not in the troupe, the children would not be going to school. "There is no free education and people in the villages can't afford school fees."
The five to 15-year-olds in the dance troupe receive a formal education at local schools while training to represent Nigeria at festivals in France, Turkey, Bulgaria, Jordan, the United States and (this weekend) the UK.
Patrick Idiong is far more than a dancemeister. He is also all-round chaperon and benefactor. The children, up to 35 of them at once, live with Mr Idiong and his wife when they are not on tour. Mr Idiong pays for their education, medical care, food and clothing. The troupe does not receive a government grant (although the children are sometimes paid to perform at state functions) and is funded by donations and performance fees.
Rehearsals run for an average of two hours a night after school. Competition to perform is tough and keeps the standard extraordinarily high. For their current British tour, 16 of the most talented and dedicated have been selected from the larger troupe.
We meet them at a community centre on the outskirts of town with the unlikely name of "Heroes' World". They are wearing their green and yellow stage costumes, designed by Mr Idiong in a traditional style. The faces and bare legs of the girls are covered in markings associated with the region's Ibibio people, to whom most of the children belong.
The facilities at the centre are basic. Initially, the drums and wooden xylophones are set up on the lawn as there is no electricity in the hall and the grimy windows do not let in enough natural light. As soon as they begin dancing and drumming, there is a torrential downpour. The instruments are hastily moved inside and eventually a generator is fetched from town. They start again, but after half an hour the generator fails. Impressively, they continue their set in the dark, without missing a beat. A solitary hurricane lamp is found and they complete the performance to a combination of its flickering light and the flashes of lightning from outside. Despite such adversities, the performance is a sensational riot of rhythm and colour, the sophistication of which belies the performers' years.
The drums set up a thunderous barrage. But the wooden xylophones - made from local redwood, each with 16 keys one inch thick - are surprisingly melodic. Akanimo, aged eight, holds centre stage and proves to be a true showman as he hammers his xylophone with dexterity and energy.
Then the female dancers emerge. Aged between five and eight, they gyrate and leap in synchronicity and with a maturity that is astonishing. After a while, the girls hustle the boys off the drums and take over to perform a popular Nigerian folk tune called "Sweet Mother", rearranged for the troupe by Patrick Idiong.
For girls to play the drums is nothing short of revolutionary in Nigerian culture: beating out the rhythm has always been a strictly male preserve. "As far as I know, it's never been done before," says Mr Idiong.
After the performance, a good-natured argument breaks out. "I think boys are much better drummers than girls," says eight-year-old Nsikak. Maria, aged six, insists defiantly: "Girls can play drums, too."
Mr Idiong, who formed the troupe in 1991, has no formal training as a dance teacher. "All African people know how to dance and drum," he says. "It comes naturally." He tours the villages to recruit children; he says he can tell instantly if they have talent by watching them play traditional games.
For parents, a place in the Ekemeni troupe means a better future for their children. Parents visit at weekends (the performers can also go home) and receive money from performance fees for their other children.
Several of the earliest recruits to the troupe are now old enough to have won college scholarships, and Idiong's current performers appear bright and inquisitive. "My favourite subject is English and learning to read and write," says Iniobonge, a 10-year-old girl who plays the xylophone. Oto, aged eight, claims to be a budding mathematician. "But I like everything about school," he says with enthusiasm. Two years ago, Oto was one of a group that performed before 2,000 delegates at the National Summit on Africa in Washington. "But I wasn't scared," he insists. "The drums make you strong."
The Ekemeni Theatre Troupe will appear at the London Jazz Festival in association with Radio 3 in a free stage performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, tomorrow at 2.15pm. Radio 3 and 4 are broadcasting from the festival