Jeh Kulu Honors Black Lives at Vermont's Dance and Drum Festival
Black Lives Matter is on my mind often. (Author self-disclosure: I’m white.) The movement is on my mind partly because I attend the Black Lives Matter Vermont chapter meetings, partly because Jeh Kulu West African Dance and Drum Theater’s annual conference performance this year is connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, and partly because as a member of Jeh Kulu I am thankful that black lives and black art have been in my life consistently. “Jeh Kulu” means “community” in the Bambara language of Mali, and community feels more important than ever in this intense stage of humanity we are living.
Jeh Kulu has hosted the Vermont Dance and Drum Conference in Burlington every November for twenty-two years and counting. The weekend overflows with West African dance, drum, song, and other instrument classes taught by master teachers—meaning they are former members of professional West African dance companies, such as Les Ballets Africains, Ballet Djoliba , or the National Ballet of Senegal . These masters from Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire join Jeh Kulu on stage—a local company directed by masters Sidiki Sylla and Ismael Bangoura-- for the peak of the weekend: the Saturday evening performance. After the show, performers and audience members alike move the community to a downtown venue to let loose at our post-show dance party.. the kind of fun you don’t mind getting sweaty for.
Jeh Kulu creates a new ballet for the stage every November, and true to the West African ballet companies that Jeh Kulu mirrors, the annual piece often tells the people’s history: shares the stories, culture, and myths of the people of West Africa, blended with cultural influences of the United States. In years past, Jeh Kulu even ventured to adapt William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to produce an innovative version of the West African Epic of Sunjiata. This year, in honor of Black Lives Matter, our ballet focuses on themes of oppression and organized revolt, drawing connections between West Africa historically and the United States presently. In addition to the vibrant art, there is also a Sunday afternoon panel discussion open and free to the general public during the conference, where the West African masters will discuss and reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement in relation to West African history.
Every year, Jeh Kulu’s theatrical production is a challenging process that touches my soul. Challenging because the art—West African dance, drum and song-- is a foreign language to my United-States-soaked brain and body, and I dedicate myself to learning the foreign language to the best of my ability. Touching because we tell stories— the power of ancestors, the joy of romantic love, the brutality of colonialism, and the departure of family members. Touching also because Jeh Kulu Junior--our children-- perform alongside us and are an emblem of the passing on of tradition from one generation to the next.
I’ve been attending Jeh Kulu’s community dance and drum classes for twenty years, and despite my aging body parts, I don’t see an end to my addiction. Nothing tops the heart-racing catharsis of whole-body response to ferocious polyrhythms. The classes are a holistic ritual of movement, music, and togetherness. Losing myself in a larger (and funky/pulsing) whole is a healthy way to transcend my stress or worry of the day—and that is the small selfish aspect of attending class or dancing and drumming at a gathering. When there is deeper need, the community, the time and place to gather, and the mode of expression are already in place. Joining others in this art for a birthday, a wedding, a baby-naming, or a farewell rite of passage fills a place in my heart that all humans need filled. Call it tribal ceremony. Human beings are wired for it. One of the largest and most powerful dance classes I attended was September 12, 2001.
A note on white privilege, a phrase and concept now more well-known thanks to activist Peggy McIntosh. Vermont is a primarily white state, and communities here embrace West African dance and drum enthusiastically—which they should! Jeh Kulu has been visiting schools across the state and dancing in town parades for more than two decades with the purpose of sharing the ecstasy of the music and culture. If and when you join in, and you identify as white, please be aware it is a privilege to jump into another culture’s mode of expression—especially if that culture has not been treated fairly or respectfully here in the United States. You are bypassing generations of struggle and systemic oppression. Be wary of cultural appropriation. I recommend to let your experience with another culture be one of understanding perspective, listening to stories, and genuinely knowing individual people—not borrowing something that is surface level.
In truth, black lives have been a part of my life for most of my life. I grew up in the time and place now known as the Golden Age of Hip Hop. As gritty as my teenaged years were, (whose aren’t?), I am forever grateful for the diversity of people that my restaurant job on a highway next to New York City introduced to me. Hip hop was pouring out of car windows, rattling the knobs of the dish station’s boom box where I worked, and rolling off of people’s tongues. Because of this, I thought of rap and hip hop as folk music. I especially digested the lyrics of outrage and protest, and viscerally understood them. The “War on Drugs” did not target drugs.
New England was mystical to me— Moby Dick, clam chowder, picturesque churches-- and I gravitated towards it as a young adult. (Please note picking up and moving to a geographical location of my fancy is another white privilege.) One of the first things I did in Vermont, especially thanks to the whiteness I wasn’t prepared for, was seek variety in peoples, as well as seek more black folk music. Literally—I was looking for it. And it was here. Jeh Kulu West African Dance and Drum Theater was founded in 1993 by Padma Gordon, with Sidiki Sylla and Ismael Bangoura joining in 1997.
We jokingly have the unofficial slogan “building community and making babies since 1993”. Most years, as we design and sew costumes for the conference performance, we have to make one costume slightly larger in the belly area. Vermont will soon meet a new little life that most certainly matters, because Jeh Kulu is expecting!
Join us for the Jeh Kulu Dance and Drum Conference the first weekend in November in Burlington.