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African Heritage concert celebrates culture through the arts

The third annual concert of African dance and music at Ohio University expands campus involvement and community outreach with a new way of teaching the arts.

May 4, 2006
By Anita Martin

Twilight falls to a scattered drum cadence patterned after the morning calls of African songbirds. The rhythm, called Dibon, traditionally calls Guinean farmers home from work in the fields. But on Friday, May 12, at 8 p.m., it welcomes the public to Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium for Heritage: Celebration of African Culture through the Arts.

Photos by Mykal McEldowneyHeritage, the third annual concert of African dance and music by Ohio University's School of Dance, supported by the Department of African American Studies and the Center for International Studies, is now bigger than ever. This year, the School of Dance merged with the School of Music to expand the Ohio University African Ensemble to both dancers and drummers.

The ensemble performs with the multi-ethnic ensemble Azaguno, Ohio University Singers, and the new St. Clairsville High School African Ensemble. The show is arranged, choreographed and composed by Zelma Badu-Younge, assistant professor of dance, and Paschal Yao Younge, associate professor of music. Guest artists include Assane Konte, founder and artistic director of Kankouran West African Dance Company (Washington, D.C.); Prosper Adjetey, formerly of the National Dance Company of Ghana; and Estelle Lavoie, artistic director of Taafé Fanga (Montreal, Quebec).

The concert showcases traditional and contemporary dancing, drumming and singing from West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. The result, says Badu-Younge is "an eclectic celebration of African cultural arts," performed by a diverse group.

"Usually you see such presentations from a troupe of Africans, but these are mostly American students presenting on stage," Younge says. "In our (Ohio University African Ensemble) we also have students from Japan, China and South America. We are learning a lot from one another."

Intersecting lines

In Ghana, West Africa, where Badu-Younge researched her master's and doctoral theses, and where Younge was born and raised, heritage depends on the arts.

"Like most of Africa, the tradition in Ghana is oral culture," Younge says. "They have a different way of remembering and communicating their past; they do it through drumming, dancing and singing."

Africa, where drums talk and music preserves history, meets America, traditional hotbed of cultural fusion, in this concert. Honoring the heritage of both, the show divides into two parts.

The first half of the concert focuses on the traditional scene. "It tells the story of the African community and highlights essential aspects of African arts," Paschal says: "how drums and movement communicate, religious events, harvest celebrations, wars, children at play."

Following intermission, traditional Africa fuses with contemporary and cross-cultural performing arts. In one piece, called Rhythm Keepers, Bamaaya, a Northern Ghanaian dance, merges into contemporary tap and Irish step dances.

"We're combining different rhythms and postures of movement," Badu-Younge says. "What's interesting is that the arts can be shown as a juxtaposition of different forms, or they can combine into new, original forms."

Parts of the whole

Photos by Mykal McEldowneyAt the start of each Ohio University African Ensemble class, Badu-Younge leads a dance warm-up, required for all ensemble members, even musicians. Next, dancers join accompanists in a round of drumming before drummers and dancers separate to focus on their respective roles. This approach exposes drummers to the feel of the dance, and dancers to the rhythms of music.

"Learning the drumming really does help with the dancing," says Debbie Rogers, a junior anthropology and African studies major and an ensemble dancer. "The drumming is key. If you're not listening to the drumming, you're not dancing it right."

Stu Schwab, a senior telecommunications major and ensemble drummer, says the drummers and dancers "feed off each other. You see the dancers using the rhythm of the music, and it provides a nice synergy between the movement and the drumming."

This multidisciplinary approach, according to Younge, reveals the African artistic sensibility.

"In Africa, there is no concept of separating performing arts and visual arts," Younge says. "Music is related to dance, is related to theatre, is related to costume and so on. When you study an art form, you study all art forms. All art operates together."

Cultural outreach

At this year's Heritage concert, the St. Clairsville African Ensemble, a group of seventh to twelfth graders from St. Clairsville middle school and high school, debuts its talents.

Photos by Mykal McEldowneyTo prepare the group, Younge weekly drives two and half hours to St. Clairsville and back to teach African drumming and dance with the help of Erin Drury, instrumental teacher of grades five through twelve. 

"Nothing like this has ever been through St. Clairsville," says Kevin Kalany, a tenth grade trombone player and ensemble drummer.

Paschal's visits increase the students' musical and dance repertoire, while expanding their cultural awareness, Drury says.

"Sometimes it seems like if you're a boy here, you've got 'football' stamped on your forehead, and if you're a girl, you're expected to want to be a cheerleader," she says. "Any exposure to anything different is good."

According to Megan Casebolt, an ensemble dancer in the eleventh grade, St. Clairsville students are taking note. "The students here think (the ensemble) is pretty cool," she says. "The basketball team always stops to watch our rehearsals as they pass."

Three senior members of the St. Clairsville African Ensemble will attend Ohio University next year, partly due to this experience, they say.

Students in St. Clairsville and Athens alike appreciate the opportunity to acquire creative skills while learning about African culture.

"With the arts, you get to learn more about the culture in terms of the people and how they feel," Casebolt says. "Through history books you can learn what happened to them, but through dance and music, you can really see who they are, because you see what they create."

Rogers, of the Ohio University ensemble, echoes the sentiment. "I honestly think the arts are the heart of a people," she says. "There's a lot you can learn with a hypothesis, but with art, there's more you can feel - more you can live, and use and share."

Anita Martin is a staff writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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Published: May 4, 2006 12:00:00 AM
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