Kusika, Zambezi inspire optimism

This past weekend, Kusika and Zambezi transported their audience to the Gulf Region for a celebration of rebirth. Inspired by the recovery of Haiti, New Orleans and Chile from recent natural disasters, “Renewing the Spirit” not only celebrated the progress communities have made but also demonstrated the collective optimistic energy they need to rise to new heights.

Kusika infused the first half of the performance with a kinetic narrative of voices and bodies. Direction and choreography by Sandra Burton, director of dance, and arrangement by Bashir Shakur, musical director, came together to further the fall show’s theme of recovering from natural disasters. Ashley Ray‑Harris ’13 narrated a spoken word piece about “Crescent City” as a metaphor for New Orleans. Pensively stirring a bowl full of marbles, she produced a rain-like sound that echoed the torrent of words from her lips.

Kusika member Marla Robertson personified the stately “City Queen,” as she strolled confidently around the stage in her finery. But as Ray‑Harris warned, “tumultuous jesters gonna lift up their masks.” Cue the entrance of Kusika, who came out to swirl and sway like a brewing storm to somber percussion and jarring brass tones. Their frenzy captured the chaos and devastation that swept up our society and rocked it forever. The dance group echoed the chant spoken at its concert last fall: “You hear it on the news everyday. All they say is … Dan-ger, dan-ger, Dis-as-ter Ar-e-a.”

The performers also seemed to represent the cyclone of enraged souls whose lives were lost or destroyed by severe storms. Among them was Clarissa Andre ’12, who gave an impassioned speech in Creole for Haiti. Though her specific words were lost on the audience, her fervor spoke volumes. Over the course of the routine, the tumult ripped the finery from the Crescent City Queen and she collapsed. The dancers lifted the fallen queen and carried her offstage. Ray‑Harris left a final reminder with the audience that “her power doesn’t lie in her crown but in common masses that made her.”

Eloquent instrumentals were part of a “sound of a life so loud” that Ray-Harris had spoken of earlier. Kusika’s next act revolved around the plantation song “Peas and Rice.” The dancers contributed to the rhythm by shaking bead‑filled wooden bowls, which brimmed with a harvest of sound. Nykeah Parkham ’13 led the drumbeats into a call-and-answer rhythm with drums, celebrating the “coming of age of a people.” Many members had a chance to flaunt their individual styles as the others formed a ring of dancing around them. At the finale, called “M’semba” (meaning the passage of strength and power between generations), the energy and excitement peaked; a quartet of trash cans joined the drums to represent a convergence of traditional and modern styles. Tapping each other’s drumsticks in synchronization, they helped to craft intricate mechanisms of melody.

For the next act, the show transitioned to Zambezi’s magic. The chromatic marimbas, which spoke eloquently of the group’s new directions, were hand-designed by Ernest Brown, founder of Zambezi, ethnomusicologist and professor of music. Beneath the hanging African tapestries, the players rotated among keyboards in a myriad of sizes. The band added elements piece by piece, gradually layering diverse parts into a rousing whole. The range of instruments, from shrill plastic whistles to sonorous gongs, merged in eclectic harmony. Pieces written by Nigerian musical and social critic Fela Kuti and Alport Mhlanga of Zimbabwe’s Maru a Pula (a school in Botswana) were in their repertoire – all taught to them by Laone Thesiko ’12, another Maru a Pula alumnus.

Some pieces began softly and deliberately, gaining auditory momentum as the audience rode along. The energy and expressiveness of the musicians made up half of the performance. Whether intent on vigorously putting their mallets to work on an upbeat song or riding the waves of a mellow song, they rocked and even danced.

Ultimately, the potent cohesion of “Renewing the Spirit” reminded its audience that survivors can indeed move forward to restore their livelihoods.