It’s all about the drum
Joining the African and the African-American through performance
by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc
“Africa/America: Children of the Dance,” at the Merrill Auditorium, March 2, at 8 p.m. Call the Center for Cultural Exchange at 761-1545, or stop by the box office, for advance tickets.
The way Bau Graves, co-director of the Center for Cultural Exchange,
describes it, the pressure of government cutbacks in federal arts funding
led to the idea behind
“Africa/America: Children of the Dance,” an original dance and musical
performance piece commissioned by the Center, being performed this Friday
in Merrill Auditorium.
¡YIP! dancers rehearse under the direction of Julio Leitao in preparation for “Africa/America: Children of the Dance.”
“At the time we were dreaming up this piece, Newt [Gingrich] had just come
in, and the [National Endowment for the Arts] budget was slashed, and the
grants that could be applied for changed drastically,” says Graves. “A
bunch of people got fired. We knew everything would ride on one application
a year, one big crapshoot. We used to do strictly local things, then [the
NEA] said they’d only fund events with regional and national significance.
With “Africa/America: Children of the Dance,” Graves and the Center for
Cultural Exchange found a way to combine African dance choreographer Julio
Leitão wa Kabuaya and Gospel arranger/conductor/performer JD Steele with
local refugee youths involved in the Center’s ¡YIP!, or “Youth Intensive
Two years and a $75,000 commission later, the ¡YIP! Dancers will take the
stage alongside Leitão’s Harlem-based African dance troupe, Batoto Yetu,
and Steele’s Maine Mass Gospel Choir. Over 100 dancers, singers, and
musicians will explore, according to Bau, “the connections between African
and African-American culture.”
The Phoenix sat down with Leitão and Steele to discuss their
Q: What are your impressions of Portland and the African-American
and African communities in Portland?
Leitão: It’s too cold here for Africans. [Laughs.] They’re probably
having a hard time adjusting because of the cold — I have been. The Center
does a great job trying to embrace other cultures, trying to make the extra
citizens of Portland feel welcome by embracing their cultures.
Steele: Portland is surprisingly ethnically diverse — I’m amazed at
the restaurants you guys have. I sat in the last couple Mondays with Inside
Straight at the Big Easy, did a little Marvin Gaye, a little Earth, Wind,
and Fire. The audience was packed and we had a blast. It was a concert
atmosphere. The people here embrace other cultures.
Q: You have all of these groups collaborating for this show —
Batoto Yetu, the Maine Mass Gospel Choir, the ¡YIP! Dancers. How are you
putting them together in this one performance?
Leitão: It is always challenging and interesting — how can we
bridge the cultures? African-Americans created their own culture within
their struggle in this country, and that’s where Gospel Music comes from,
that’s where JD comes from. The time we have is never enough — I work with
kids who are non-professionals and my job is to train them to a
professional level, then bring them together with the choir and JD.
Steele: The combination is going to be fiery.
Q: Can you give me an example of a problem that came up in your
Leitão: Finding common ground when you’re dealing with two different
cultures is always the most interesting and the most challenging thing.
JD and I have struggled to find it between the rhythms. When we were here
[this summer], we exchanged ideas about rhythms, which he then went and
worked on and brought back to me.
Steele: I had to come listen to his drummer during the residency
to hear the rhythms. Then I had to create music and melodies on top of the
rhythms. That challenged me artistically — it took me longer to write the
music than I thought it would. I know Julio would like to have had more
time to put his dances to my music. But we’re here. We’re doing it.
Q: What have you learned about each other’s cultures through
Leitão: When I began working with American kids, I discovered they
had problems with their self-esteem, with their identities. For us, for
Africans, you don’t know what loneliness is — you always live in a
community. Here you find people living around other people, but they’re
Steele: I’ve learned about the variety of rhythm styles that come
out of the different parts of Africa. Being able to marry the
African-American gospel style with those rhythms, I’ve found that there is
a consistent thread between the two cultures, and that thread is the drum.
It’s all about the drum.
Q: What do you think the performers have learned from preparing
for this performance?
Leitão: From the first time I worked with kids, I received emails
from them after I left saying, “Oh, we performed again,” so they managed
to continue to perform, which is a great sign for me. It shows that they’re
continuing to embrace their culture and that their self-esteem increased
without them knowing it.
Steele: My choir is made up of singers of all ages, races, and
backgrounds from the Portland community. They have really embraced the
music and the style. It’s been up to me to try to get the most soul out
of them as possible, and they’ve been giving it up.
Q: It’s a kind of experiment — what you two are doing here.
Leitão: It is an experiment — a way of finding common ground,
building bridges. They’re two totally different cultures.
Steele: We’re not going to know whether or not it works until the
night of the performance. It’s just like this summer when Batoto Yetu was
here, and we did one piece together. That’s when we saw the vision. We saw
it can work. It’s unique, what we’re trying to do.