A MUSICIAN IN elaborate costume begins drumming an urgent rhythm as a large group of adults and children are ushered from the noisy foyer of Manchester Museum, leaving behind children's art workshops, the bustle of the café, and the gift shop. A storyteller in what looks like traditional Arab costume draws us upstairs saying, “Do you hear that? Do you hear that music, everyone? It means it's time. Come. We have to move, move quickly. The soldiers will be here any minute. Come with me if you want to be safe. Follow the music.” At the top of the stairs, we find ourselves in the Museum's Manchester Gallery dominated by the giant skeleton of Maharaja, an Asian elephant that lived in Manchester's Belle Vue Zoo for ten years in the late 1800s. Positioning himself beside the skeleton, the storyteller explains that the ruler's soldiers have
chased us here, all the way to this United Kingdom, to England, to Manchester, to this Manchester Museum, because they want to stop the music. Because in my kingdom, this special music is forbidden. It's been hidden away for a thousand years. And forbidden, because it brings ancient magic back into the world. The ancient magic could bring hidden stories to life, the truth behind what we think we see. It conjures up the hidden world of the past— like this place does. In this museum the people from the past talk to all of us, through dresses and fabrics and earrings and weapons and combs and necklaces and fishing rods.
We are drawn into the next gallery by singing, ululation, and the rhythms of music performed by a live band fronted by an exuberant and engaging female singer. The storyteller explains that it's music from the Congo: “the music they would play every Saturday night, magic that would bring family and friends together.” Performing in the entrance to the Living Cultures Gallery, the band is positioned in front of a huge glass case which displays wooden masks and carvings of human figures, some only six inches tall and some almost life size; the accompanying information informs the viewer that these were made in the nineteenth century by people in Kongo, Nigeria, and Ogoniland. On each side of the large central case stand eight dancers, wearing traditional Congolese clothing, gently moving to the music.