Kusika and Zambezi welcome African ‘Spirit’ onstage

With the College’s department of dance in the full swing of its spring performances, the ’62 Center’s MainStage has become a portal into several countries and cultures all over the world. Sandwiched between last weekend’s trip to the hills of Ireland and next weekend’s delve into Indian dance, this weekend’s performance offered an immersion into African culture. The efforts of Kusika and the Zambezi Marimba Band joined forces to present “Power, Identity and Spirit,” a performance that delivered a new corner of the world to the purple bubble.
Directed by Sandra Burton, Lipp family director of dance, Ernest Brown, professor of music and Bashir Shakur, musical director, the show centered on storytelling and the traditional ways in which these dances of West Africa were used as forms of both social and religious expression. Zambezi’s continuance of the Zimbabwean marimba band tradition also tells its own story through the rhythms of the drums. Kusika means “to create,” and that is exactly what they did.
Burton introduced the show by inviting the audience to dance and sing along. “The rhythm is infectious,” Burton said. “It is a reflection of our love of the work and of our community.” Having not been able to attend the show in the evening, I was there on Saturday afternoon with mostly families from the community, including the under-four club (four feet, that is). The invitation to stand up and run around in the aisles was not one that was taken lightly, but it added more life to the show; the music was just too alive for the audience to keep still.
Kusika started its performance with a small band of drums on the stage. As the first song, “Who We Are,” concluded, the audience was clearly excited for more. As the dancers came onstage in their traditional dress for the second song, “Bamaya,” the theme of storytelling was brought to the forefront of our minds through their movements. The story of this dance is that the Dagomba people from Ghana had stopped giving sacrifices to the elders, so all of their water sources had dried up and there was no rain. The elders told them that the women were to dance a particular dance for the gods, but because the women were not allowed to do this dance, the men dressed in women’s clothing to ask the gods for rain. The dancers’ costumes emphasized this point in their drama. Anklets of tinkling bells and belts of what looked like flowers adorned the dancers, heightening every movement of their hips. One thing that really stood out with Kusika was the synchronization of the dancers. This created an amazing effect, as if an outside force was pushing and pulling their bodies as one as they swayed in harmony with one another.
The third song, “Power Source,” was performed by just the Kusika drummers, who were accompanied by beat-boxer Pedro Roque ’13. Following the theme of storytelling, it was interesting to witness in this song the “conversation” that went on between Roque’s beat-boxing and the beats of the drums. The call-and-response patterns created a fascinating illusion of two people having a conversation back and forth.
“Women’s Dance” followed in a similar call-and-response manner, but this time it was between the dancers and the musicians, as each called out to the other in a type of one-on-one echoing of music and movement. In the transition between this piece and the next, Myya McGregory ’14 performed a poem accompanied by music. Her interaction with the audience as she asked, “Did you steal my fire?” made for a very powerful experience that echoed the oral traditions of African culture.
The final two numbers involving the entire company of Kusika were very fun. The costumes were more modern and the two pieces, “Bantaba” and “Gahu,” were both intricate social dances mimicking the movements of flirting, gossiping and community dialogue.
The Zambezi Marimba Band took to the stage next. As the instruments were rolled onto the stage and the musicians took their places, it was impossible not to be excited about the diversity of sound that would soon flood the audience’s ears. The band played a total of seven numbers in which all of the performers had a chance to play many of the various instruments. Throughout the entire performance, all I could think was how much fun it looked like they were all having. The energy that the group brought to its music was impossible to ignore, and it didn’t take long for those in the audience to begin bouncing around the aisles. My two favorites of the night were “The Harder They Come” and “Sarura Wako.” The former is a song originally by reggae artist Jimmy Cliff. Zambezi gave this song a distinct voice, despite the fact that only instruments were employed. The latter was the closer of the night and it was obviously a song of celebration. While the song began fairly slow, it ended in an explosion of rhythm and vocals that gave the experience an air of musical ecstasy.
Both of these groups were very successful in telling the traditional stories of African culture with whatever creative means they could – music, dance, poetry and visuals were all used brilliantly to transport the audience into this world.

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