Arts coalesce in cross-cultural spectacle

May our hands and our hearts come closer.
So that, joined to the past, we may continue into the future.

Part of a West African prayer, these words headlined the program for last weekend’s Kusika and Zambezi spring concert. The prayer ties into the concert’s theme, “M’Semba,” a Su-Su word meaning the handing down of “power and strength from one generation to the next.” As one of the Kusika directors, Sandra Burton, professor of dance, explained in her opening words, the cross-generational collaboration that made this show possible is a tribute to, and celebration of, this tradition of passing down knowledge and wisdom.

Though Kusika African Dance and the Zambezi Marimba Band are separate student groups, they occasionally come together for joint concerts that combine the high energy of Kusika’s drummers and dancers with the dynamic musicianship of the Zambezi Marimba Band to create a show that offers a diverse blend of musical and dance performances. “Kusika,” a Shona word meaning “to create,” is a traditional African dance, drumming and storytelling group, while the Zambezi Marimba Band performs music from Zambia and Zimbabwe by using traditional Zimbabwean marimbas and the Ghanaian gyil. Under the direction of Ernest Brown, professor of music; Burton; musical director Bashir Shakur and this semester, Ghanaian artists Bernard Woma and Sulley Imoro, both groups are primarily student-based, but Zambezi is unique in that its performers also include community and faculty members.

Both groups are heavily influenced by their respective backgrounds, particularly Zambezi through its instruments: The term marimba refers to traditional instruments that use a combination of resonators and a wooden keyboard. Traditionally, gourds of different sizes comprise the resonators, which create a rattling noise distinctive in marimba music. The gyil, on the other hand, is a related instrument belonging to the xylophone family and native to Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.

The show opened with a high-energy piece for dance and drums composed by Shakur. Dancers joined in the building rhythm of the drums, standing behind the semicircle of drummers and beating their own drums as part of the choreography. A mesmerizing pattern dominated the beat at the end, with the drummers synchronized as they moved their hands between their neighbors’ drums and their own. The piece itself was dynamic, taking different forms as it evolved from beginning to end.

As the opening piece came to an end, the lighting darkened the performers on stage to silhouettes against the ambiance of a green background, allowing for a smooth transition to the Zambezi Marimba Band. “Osano,” Zambezi’s first song, was an arrangement of a spirited tune by Alport Mhlanga. The piece ended in a long solo improvisation on soprano, played by Laone Thekiso ’12. In the next piece, Stefan Ward-Wheten ’11 took the solo; the various voices of the marimbas played off each other, eventually dropping out one by one.

Transitioning back to Kusika, the program turned to a striking piece entitled “Kuumba,” a Swahili word meaning creativity. “Kuumba” refers specifically to the type of creativity that joins people together to work towards better communities, a concept reflected in the piece, which opened with sparse music and a solo dancer who was eventually joined by more accompaniment and the remaining dancers. The choreography depicted the soloist with a wooden bowl, assumedly working in the field by herself, moving to an internal beat that was supported by light drumming in the background. Other female dancers eventually joined her, entering in flowing, colorful outfits and picking out their own bowls before joining in the beautifully choreographed dance of communal work. The piece stood out in its maturity and elegance, slower paced than the other dances but retaining an equally remarkable energy.

The remainder of the program featured frequent transitions between Kusika, marimba, gyil and mbira pieces. The mbira, a small, finger keyboard made of metal tabs of different sizes and pitches attached to a wooden board, is an ancient instrument traditionally used in spiritual and social situations. Pieces done on the mbira generally feature several people performing different variations of a specific melody, and Saturday’s show proved the performers’ ability to create the resulting intricate and interwoven texture. The pieces all had lilting melodies, each featuring Satya Ferreira, a community member and longtime Kusika/Zambezi member, singing traditional lyrics over the repeated cycle of the mbira music.

Though the concert was considerably long for such an energetic performance, the dancers and musicians remained relaxed and enthusiastic. The format of the concert gave it a good momentum, frequently switching mediums to create a diversity in the mood and type of performance. Overall, the melding of dance and diverse African musical traditions made an enjoyable performance that exposed the viewer to a number of instruments and styles.