Kùlú Mèlé’s enduring artistic journey

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Kùlú Mèlé African Dance & Drum Ensemble’s single performance of “From Mali To America” on October 15 at the Kurtz Center in East Falls was an altogether dazzling artistic journey.  Artistic director, Dorothy Wilke programmed repertory that invoked ancestral sights and sounds, but it also resonated for contemporary audiences in profound ways.  The concert showcased a panorama of traditional dances and music from Africa and the African Diaspora, with specific focus on the folkloric dances from West Africa, Cuba and Brazil.

Company board member Kevin Parks introduced the show alluding to the current political climate that has fomented racism in America and those who would want to silence African American culture, community and solidarity. “We’re going to let them know that we’re here today and we’re not going anywhere, so make some noise!” And so we did throughout the two hour plus performance.

Dancer-choreographer-musician, Ira Bond’s officiated a water ritual that memorializes the names of ancestors and “the ones who did not make it” during the great passage and many freedom fighters of African nations and in the Americas, past and present.

Among the highlights-

Babalu-Aye” by Dorothy Wilke is a communal dance celebrating harvest and healing, originating from Yoruba people of Cuba.  The measured beats by the drummers bring on an ensemble of ten dancers who pulse in a processional – the women dressed in lavender shirts and short burlap skirts, the men in white trousers with sashes. An elder comes on as they form a seated circle and moves to each dancer with a terra cotta bowl moving from one dancer to the next in a healing ritual.  The dancers assemble in various geometric unison lines before they dance off and Ingram performs a fiery solo fiery jumps, spins, and gestures, her long dreads and costume flaring out dramatically. Edward Smallwood and Yusuf Young, calypso skip on and they spirit her away as the drummers unleash a gushing stream of beats.

Next the musical interlude with drum masters Kenneth Flauntleroy, Omar Harrison and music director John Wilke, playing the smaller dudun drums (with skins on both ends) conjuring the somber and ennobled beats of “Bata Rhythms for the Warriors.”

The mystical “Numu/Chiwara Mask Dance” choreographed by Bond, which is an ancestral dance for The Numu, the iron workers of Mali, honoring their craft because that make the tools used for harvest. Patricia Jones and Zakiya L. Cornish interact with the drummers, in arm swirling, lunging kick steps, then join them playing the bell and Shekere (a gourd instrument with beads) as two performers careen over the stage hidden under antelope masked headdress of the Chiwara.

Didadi & Yamama, choreographed by Zakiya L. Cornish and featuring Omo Kùlú Mèlé (‘Children of Kùlú Mèlé).  A quartet of the young girls perform a celebratory dance set to Didadi music from Mali’s Sikasso region.  Their simple marching steps heat up when they are joined by three young women demonstrate more intricate steps, and everybody follows with infectious esprit de corps. Imani Heath, among the youngest dancers in the troupe, captivated with her precision moves and joyous energy.  Heath is the great, great granddaughter of the late Robert Crowder, who founded Kùlú Mèlé and was himself a legendary Philly’s jazz percussionist.

Other authentic folkloric dances included “Lengen & Econ-Con” choreographed by Ayoka Wiles combine two traditional dance rituals- Lengen traditionally performed by women to imbue pregnant women with good health and long life. Eco – con is a fertility dance of the Jola people of Senegal and Gambia. Equally exuberant is choreographer Ama Schley’s “Highlife” for five women, set to music originating in 1920s Ghana, mixing indigenous African rhythm and western melody, and more liberated fusion of traditional and freestyle communal dance.

Kùlú Mèlé also fuses contemporary idioms in the two-part “Hip Hop” and “God Body” scored to rap and Latin (guiro) music.  Dancers Edward Smallwood, Bryant Lee and Yusuf Young performing as a trio then their own hip –hop choreography, punctuated with acrobatics as poets Omar Harrison and James Ali Wilkie rapped about creative energy.

The two closing works were scored to musical commissions by the company’s guest resident composer Moussa Traore, the drum sinfonia “Bamana Foli” classic rhythms from Mali was known to influence American blues musicians.  In this performance the five drummers moving downstage with a phalanx of drums to ignite Traore’s trance-inducing sound-field.

Traore’s “Sweeter Than Sweet” is the sound field for choreographer Cornish’s high velocity Madan and Didadi dances that symbolize seasonal celebrations. Dancers sweeping over the stage in rapturous ensemble dance, embodying the spirit of Kùlú Mèlé, now celebrating its 48th season with this artistic harvest of music, dance and this ensemble’s indelible spirit.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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1 Comment

  1. I am so sorry I missed this remarkable group. We have been in the trenches together all these years It is great to see them given credit for their work. Yes stay, don’t go away, our dance matters. Dorothy Wilke you are amazing….If slavery didn’t beat us nothing else will. Love J.B.

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