"We exemplify what music truly is -- a force that can unify." Those were Brother Ah's opening remarks at the World Music Ensemble's concert Saturday night at the Gunston Art Center. Certainly, not everything the ensemble played lived up to its spokesman's grandiose claims. Sometimes, the round table of experts on tabla, koto, flamenco guitar and African percussion played backup for Brother Ah's predictable jazz configurations on various wind instruments. What prevented all this from dissolving into coloristic embellishment -- or the musical equivalent of Brother Ah's gray flannel suit with kente cloth scarf -- was the adherence of each player to his or her traditional idioms.

That steadfastness also worked to the ensemble's disadvantage. At its most conventional, the World Music Ensemble was a United Nations in sound, engaging in polite and inconsequential diplomatic chatter. At other times, the group's members stretched the boundaries of their jazzy fusion, daring one another into the realm of eerily ritualistic impressionism. Two such excursions were led by vocalist Imani, whose shrieks, sighs and wails lifted the group into a heightened level of expression and electrified the mood in that middle school auditorium. Even Brother Ah, a somewhat self-absorbed performer, was swept into the spellbinding dialogue, echoing Imani's sounds on a variety of flutes as he paced behind her. Unfortunately, Imani's rendition of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" was marred by Broto Roy's intrusive drum machine antics.

Despite an occasional loss of focus and the funky kick that came and went with the reticent bass amp, World Music Ensemble blends past and present like few others. It challenges its audience with new sounds and thoughts about the links between music cultural identity. The sight of all those instruments on the stage was enough to fire anyone's imagination. Indeed, one hopes that some sound expert will fix things so that Torcuato Zamora's guitar and Kyoko Okamoto's koto can be not only seen but also heard.