Last weekend, Kusika and the Zambezi Marimba Band presented their end-of-semester concert, “Fly Right,” on the MainStage of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance.
On Saturday evening, the dance and music departments dedicated the performance to the late Professor of Music Ernest Brown, who founded Zambezi and co-founded Kusika, profoundly impacting the music department’s study of African dance and music. Brown passed away on April 3 at the age of 64.
In a three-part performance, Kusika produced a show that took on new meaning as a celebration of Brown’s life. The group’s costumes, ranging from animal prints to brightly-colored patterns that dazzled under the bright lights, illuminating the stage. With the Kusika drummers grouped to the right of the space, the dancers took the stage first, beginning their dance in silence. The troupe moved together, initially stepping forward slowly and uniformly before speeding up as the percussion entered. A haunting chant of “shallow water” filled the stage as a soloist stepped forward, dipping her hands and face in an invisible water source. The other dancers rallied around her, lifting her high into the air.
Each piece was introduced by a spoken interlude, often introducing themes of what it means to be an African or referencing the diaspora. The second piece, “Call to the Ancestors,” spoke directly to those sentiments, drawing on themes of not just what was displaced but also what was lost in the diaspora. In addition to the strong percussion line that is Kusika’s signature, a cello joined this piece, adding a mournful quality to the dance. The piece started with a solo female dancer who, framed by a backdrop depicting the African continent, danced slowly under a heavy imaginary burden. She then was seized by fits of passion as the cello’s notes were overtaken by the insistence of the drums. The percussion brought joy back to the dance, inviting four other dancers onto the stage who moved quickly in unison.
When the dancers took a break from the stage, the Kusika percussionists told the story of what it means to be an immigrant. The members took turns telling unique stories, addressing themes of love, opportunity and loss. The spoken word gave way to a slow ballad, titled “Afro Blue,” sung a cappella by Paloma Marin ’12. The song explored the idea of love, with a clear, high, beautiful delivery that brought the message to life.
Kusika wrapped up its portion of the performance with a bright, fast-moving piece with a driving beat. The dancers paraded on stage in two lines, ultimately joining together to form a circle. As they came together, they made graceful sweeping motions with their arms, picking up their pace until they moved impossibly fast, spurred on by the insistence of the percussion.
Zambezi followed Kusika onto the stage, filling the ’62 Center with its raucous harmonies. The band opened with its trademark joyfulness, anchored only by the drums as the marimba players’ mallets flew across the instruments. As the program noted, the piece, titled “Flying Home,” required challenging improvisation from the musicians, providing a refreshing interpretation of the song.
The marimba band played five pieces, ranging from more traditional African songs to jazz interpretations of songs like “Summertime” by George Gershwin. While their pieces stayed true to the lighthearted spirit of the band, the songs alternated between the unrestrained vibrancy of the marimba and the steady, leading beat of the drum.
After the performance, the music and dance departments gave a special performance in honor of Brown. With a slideshow of pictures from Brown’s life, in particular his travels to western and southern Africa, playing in the background, his two sons came forward to speak of his legacy. As they spoke, they revealed a life dedicated to understanding and celebrating culture. His sons consider Brown’s legacy to be continuing to build musical bridges, traveling the diaspora and bringing music and friendships back home with him. His sons’ speeches were followed by drum and marimba pieces and finally, a eulogy of his life by Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding. The collection of performances was not mournful but rather celebratory of a life filled with passion. To this end, the musicians of Zambezi led the crowd to a final party in honor of Brown by parading down Route 2 with percussive instruments as they pounded out the joy of the full life of a friend.