Melvin Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers celebrated Kujichagulia, Kwanzaa's second day, Monday at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium. This annual tradition featured roughly 50 musicians and dancers, and audience participation was frequent and enthusiastic.
The production was so true to the spirit of an African festival that only its Western-style raised stage, separating the audience from the performers, seemed out of place.
This year's show was "a tribute to griots and oral historians of traditional and contemporary African society." "Baba C" demonstrated, with a rap-tinged introduction and a comic parable, some of the adaptations this tradition has undergone for American practitioners. Other griots among the musicians--notably Cheick Hamala Diabate, Djimo Kouyate and master drummer Baba Ngoma--contributed with traditional songs and instruments.
Deal's productions achieve a unique blend of high professionalism and disarming naivete; polished instructors often share the stage with beginners as young as 3 or 4 years old. Every age level is represented in several large ensemble dance numbers, and the floor is frequently opened to walk-on riffs by former students. The dance sequences are invariably long and complex, but are exactly coordinated with the music.
The larger purposes of the festivities were also carefully spelled out during the opening libation, the candle-lighting ceremony, and keynote remarks by Wilhelmina Rolark, CEO of the United Black Fund. Kwanzaa's second day emphasizes self-determination.
The quest to discover and preserve African heritage, embodied in the work of the griots, was clearly linked to the struggle for independence, from the days of slavery to the present.