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Africa Out West Embodies Diasporic West African Traditions in Feast of Drum & Dance

Photo by Seed Lynn

“Art imitates life — that’s how you connect with people, it’s authentic, it’s real. Those same principles of African art are there — you just have to reinterpret it and make it relevant to today’s time. The word djembe means “come together.” Once you hear the djembe it lets you know that the people need to come together — come and dance. It’s an instrument that’s used for all life’s rights of passages . . . it’s a lot of history.”
-Desmond Owusu, co-director of Azania Drum

Africa Out West, the May 18 performance at the Kehrein Center for the Arts delighted and nourished the Austin community with a diverse mix of traditional African diasporic dance and music. The performance brought together Chicago-based companies Muntu Dance Theatre, Ayodele Drum & Dance, Move Me Soul, and Azania Drum on the same stage for the first time.

This particular mix of African diasporic dance and music, drawing on performance traditions from the Black Atlantic, was curated and produced by Arif Smith. Smith is the program manager of Music Moves Chicago, an Old Town School of Folk Music arts and community wellness initiative.

Smith’s vision for Africa Out West followed the “cultural trajectory” of Old Town School’s Green Line Exchange Project, which used the elevated train line as strategy for mapping the artistic production and community institutions situated along the railway, which is the only route that connects the South and West Sides. Smith said he used the cultural gravity of West African art as a bridge between the communities. The result of his organizing led to what Smith calls the “embodiment of diasporic West African traditions” such as dance and drumming for Africa Out West.

Africa Out West— it was about bringing West Africa to the West Side of Chicago,” Smith said.

Photo by Seed Lynn

Smith, whose many artistic talents include his primary identity as a musician, was raised in Sand Springs, Oklahoma — not far from Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street. Smith says he grew up with “all kinds of diasporic identities.” These many diasporic identities, following the transatlantic slave trade route, created an opportunity to create in Africa Out West, the feeling of being in a maroon village (liberated, self-governing communities where escaped slaves lived.)

“It’s a family village affair,” Smith said. “That’s what made the concert so dynamic, so special and memorable. I want folks to walk away with a more expansive and nuanced understanding of how culture lives, how culture transforms, and how it relates to the everyday.”

To Smith, art is about liberation. “For a world that so often wants to trivialize who you are — to trivialize your strength, your purpose, what you want to give to the world, this work affirms that — and creates opportunities for folks to connect with culture in granular ways,” Smith said.

Music Moves Chicago has partnered with South Side youth djembe ensemble Azania Drum for several years. Azania’s performers opened the Africa Out West performance by sparking traditional African audience participation.

“It was a beautiful experience to be a part of,” said Desmond Owusu, co-director of Azania Drum. “It was a really good performance for us, we got a standing ovation, and for this particular piece we added theatrical elements. They [the audience] came and threw dollars — a symbol of love and appreciation the community gave to Azania.”

Photo by Seed Lynn

Azania Drum’s performance was built around the djembe, and told the story “Can I Smile?” through their drumming and artistic performance.

“We are big on story and messaging, just because everybody can appreciate a good story,” Owusu said. “They give us advice — they are a guiding tool. With Azania — with working with youth, it’s important to share our experiences. It’s important to share messages and words of wisdom. To have the tools and the knowledge to navigate through life.”

Originally beginning in 2000 at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, Azania Drum began teaching children how to play Djembe and DunDuns. Since then, the group has developed into a performance company, a drum-making and drumming company, they released an EP in 2021, and this summer are running a 6-week summer camp.

John Chapman, the other co-director of Azania Drum, said that an essential role of the group is to make sure the boys know that they’re not alone in their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. The healing nature of drumming is an essential aspect of Azania drums. According to Chapman, “there’s a lot of therapy in it.”

“If you’re feeling sad or happy — the drumming will release all of the emotions,” Chapman said. “People will hear it, people will understand it. It’s very natural to allow yourself to heal while playing these instruments.”

Photo by Seed Lynn

Chapman and Owusu have been involved with Azania Drum since elementary school. Their friendship began while sitting next to each other as young Azania drummers, in 6th grade.

“For us to be co-directors now, it’s a full circle moment that we don’t take lightly. It feels like it was written in a lot of ways,” Owusu said. “Not everyone’s still kicking it with their 6th grade homies, let alone building a brand or company that’s based off brotherhood and sisterhood as well as African culture and dance.”

Chapman noted that Azania Drum shared deep feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood as well with the other companies in Africa Out West.

“I think this may have been the first time Azania has shared the stage with a lot of the companies in Chicago,” Chapman said. “So even in that aspect, of us being able to be a part of something with legendary companies like Muntu — that’s the kind of thing where we look back and say — this is really building into something that is impactful.”

Chapman said that Azania Drum felt like “the younger brothers in the space,” and that there was a lot of love shared between the companies backstage. It was “beautiful for us and for the boys of Azania,” Chapman said.

Azania Drum shared the stage with well-established South Side companies, Muntu Dance Theater’s & Ayodele Drum & Dance. Muntu Dance Theater’s mission is to “preserve and perpetuate the African aesthetic and its influence on world cultures, through the education and professional presentation of dance, music and folklore.” All-female Ayodele Drum & Dance according to their website, “exists to foster community from a feminine perspective through the study and performance of diasporic African drum and dance.”

Photos by Seed Lynn

Move Me Soul, a West Side dance company founded by Ayesha Jaco, is committed to providing an innovative platform for inner-city youth to train and evolve as the next generation of dancers, choreographers, and teachers. The company is currently in a re-building phase, and offers After School Matters classes on the South and West Sides, offers residencies, yoga classes, and is building out arts education, and health and wellness initiatives.

Jaco, who grew up in West Garfield Park, said that all of Move Me Soul’s performers, and co-artistic director, Artez Jackson, grew up in Austin or went to school in Austin.

“It was an amazing experience,” Jaco said. “It was great to see that space activated because oftentimes, for a performance like that it’s just on the South Side or downtown. So to have it come to the West Side is beautiful.”

Move Me Soul’s performance, titled “Lake Street to Lagos,” is a tribute to Fela Kuti, the famous Nigerian musician and activist, who came to the U.S., and was inspired by James Brown, Malcolm X, and others. He then returned to Nigeria where he advocated for equity across race, economic vitality, and is known as a pioneer of the Afrobeat genre of music. Move Me Soul originally curated the piece in 2012, and found the invitation to perform at the Kehrein Center to be a perfect space to bring it back.

“We [Move Me Soul] were born in Austin — in Austin High School in 2008 — and have been in residence in the Austin Town Hall and Bethel New Life,” Jaco said. “Lake Street is just a few blocks north of the Kehrein Center. Africa Out West — it has so many layers — the connection between the West Side of Chicago, West Africa, Nigeria, Fela Kuti.”

Jaco called the performance a “full-circle moment.” She said that dance, for her, “is as vital as oxygen.” Jaco uses her gifts to tell stories, to share self-expression, and to introduce dance to young people as a vehicle of transformation.

This beautiful film created by Sulyiman Stokes shows the dynamic Africa Out West performances featuring Move Me Soul, Muntu Dance Theatre, Azania Drum & Ayodele Drum & Dance!

Jaco’s niece, Akeelah Jaco, a former member of Move Me Soul, attended the performance as an audience member. She said that the Azania Drums’ performance stood out especially for her, and that it was always a treat seeing her former company perform.

“It was a good contrast, from the traditional West African mix to seeing our [Move Me Soul’s] style on it,” Akeelah Jaco said. “I think it was a very nice collaboration. The performance was really good, I was proud.”

Africa Out West is the second performance in the Global Music Series partnership between the Kehrein Center, and Old Town School of Folk Music. Through a $45,000 grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Activities and Special Events, the partnership produced this past April’s concert, Jazz Joumou, and in the fall will host Daymé Arocena, the acclaimed Afro-Cuban jazz vocalist.

“The performance was deeply rooted in culture,” said Edmund Siderewicz, co-managing director of Kehrein Center. “As Arif said, Africa Out West truly portrayed what it feels like to be in the village. There is abundant life flowing from the partnership that was born this year. It is good news, and our world sorely needs healthy doses of good news today.”

Follow the KCA website, social media & newsletter to learn more and register for upcoming performances.

“I want the young folks to be exposed and inspired by the possibilities they see on stage. . . then to go into the world and transform another life,” Smith said. “I want folks to walk away feeling more whole. This programming has the potential to do that.”

Article by Sophie Vodvarka


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