Kulu Mele Dance and Drum Ensemble is celebrating their 50th season with the premiere of Ogun & the People at the Annenberg Center on November 30th. The production was conceived and choreographed by Kulu Mele’s artistic director, Dorothy Wilkie and is a multi-media, Afro-Cuban story ballet with a cast of thirty. It is also the company’s premiere on the Annenberg Center stage.
To celebrate this milestone, Kulu Mele has released a commemorative book, Ogun and the People, documenting the company’s history from its inception in 1969 by founder Robert Crowder (1930-2012). It also delves into the creation of the ballet being presented. Kulu Mele, based in Philadelphia, is the oldest continually-performing African Dance and Drum Ensemble in the nation.
The company held an Ogun book launch on October 18 at the African American Museum. Many of those in attendance came in ceremonial garb to mark the occasion. Writer and company member, Ira Bond started the presentation reminding everyone that Kulu Mele means Voice of Our Ancestors as he spoke the affirmation, the call and response to the audience – “Ashe-the ancestral energy force, spirit, to make it so.”
The invocation was followed by remarks by State Representative, Movita Johnson-Harrell who presented Dorothy Wilkie with a citation honoring the company. Johnson-Harrell represents the West Philadelphia district where the Lee Cultural Center was Kulu Mele’s headquarters for many years. Then Lateefah Shakir, a staff member of PA. State Senator Sharif Street (who was unable to attend) also presented a citation honoring the company. The day before the presentation of the book, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell had declared October 18th Kulu Mele Day in Philadelphia.
The newly released book contains photos of Robert Crowder performing, along with interview transcripts of Crowder discussing his mission to preserve the authentic sounds and artistry of African diasporan drumming. Crowder was a dancer and jazz musician who studied and performed with legendary African American choreographer Katherine Dunham and recorded with such jazz greats as John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. The book pays tribute to Crowder’s musical achievements which “changed Philadelphia’s cultural landscape through early and continuing engagement with Cuban, Haitian, Brazilian, Ghanaian, Guinean and other African musicians.”
Aside from the sumptuous photo spreads, there are oral histories of the company and its artistic goals, travels, and mission. Vivid memories are recorded in transcribed dialogues between Dorothy Wilkie and music director John Wilkie about carrying on Crowder’s legacies, and remembrances of their many artistic collaborators in Philadelphia and abroad. Kulu Mele’s repertory is a living archive of African and African diasporan dance, drum, and folkloric traditions.
The volume is also a comprehensive reference of the artistry, techniques, and vocabulary of the company’s aesthetic. There is a commentary about the generational cultural impact of the company in essays, illustrations, and writings by fifty contributors to the book, expertly edited by Debora Kodish, with exquisite illustrations by Nii Owoo.
A year in the making, the anniversary book features archival photographs from an extensive private collection of music director John Wilkie, and prints of the early years of the company provided by The Philadelphia Tribune. This trove of fine print transfers captures the energy and community engagement of the company in Philadelphia and around the world.
Dorothy Wilkie told the gathering at the ceremony that the upcoming performance at the Annenberg is fulfilling a long dream to create a dance-drama about the Yoruba deities Ogun/Orisha, choreographed as a Pataki (a sacred parable), that speaks to our time. In her adaptation, Ogun is a warrior, protector, and giver of justice, after he returns from a long spiritual journey. He is not recognized by the people and goes into exile in the forest. The people are in such chaos, that the other Yoruba divinities go to the forest, to get Ogun to return.
Wilkie created a mythic narrative in dance, music, film, costumes, and stagecraft. To achieve the choreographic authenticity of its Afro-Cuban origins, Wilkie and twenty-two members of the company traveled to Cuba in 2018 to research, alongside the Cutumba Dance troupe in Santiago. the specific dance techniques she uses in this production. The book is highlighted by photos and descriptions of their creative journey in Cuba by members of the company who wrote about those experiences.
After the book launch, Wilkie said that the Annenberg premiere is “90 percent finished, but was still working on it. Teaching the children (dancers) who will be in the show.” Wilkie said she has hopes of returning to Cuba next year with the cast to perform Ogun & the People at the Santiago de Cuba’s Festival del Fuego (Fire Festival) next summer.