After months of being shut up in the house under quarantine and as the summer season rolls out full steam, it is a thrill to be able to return to some of our favorite activities! For us at WACAI that means dance class! Alseny Yansane’s All-Levels African Dance class will return to Xcape Dance Academy’s studio A (1645 Oak St) on Wednesdays, 6-7 pm from July 8th to August 19th. As always, this class will have beautiful choreography, fabulous live drumming, and provide an awesome full-body work out! Health and wellness are a priority for us so we wanted paint a picture for how things will look for returning to the studio before we meet up again on the dance floor.
In accordance with state guidelines and through a partnership between WACAI and XDA, the following protocols will be in place for dance classes. In compliance with the updated mandate that started last Friday, July 24th dancers are asked to wear face coverings at all times in the studio and outside in the parking lot when 6 feet apart physical distancing is not possible.
We realize that wearing a face covering while dancing in the Guinean style may seem like a daunting endeavor so we will be modifying the rigor of this class to accommodate for this. WACAI also invites participants to welcome these new regulations as an opportunity to dig deeper into their movement experience and focus more intentionally on their breath! As dancers and movers we are constantly being asked to stay present, open, and flexible to factors that emerge spontaneously throughout our practice and this new development is simply another chance to rise to this challenge.
Additionally, XDA will dry mop the studio floor in between classes, have hand sanitizer available, and the dance space will be ventilated through a combination of ceiling and floor fans while the garage door will remain open at all times for all classes. Students are asked to remove their street shoes before entering the dance space and to put all of their belongings together against the wall, along the periphery of the studio spread out approximately 6 feet from other students’ stuff.
Lastly, students should bring their own personal water bottles with enough water to stay hydrated for the duration of the class and be prepared to sweat, get an awesome workout, and have a great time knowing that it is possible to return to dancing while maintaining a safe environment for all! WACAI appreciates your willingness to be flexible and spontaneous and hopes to see you on the dance floor soon!
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N'Gawa whose name means "Mother Hawa" in the Susu language is, Alseny Yansane, our Co-founder and Artistic Director's Mom. After 3-4 years of hyper-tension and a series of strokes which left her physically depleted and in tenuous health, she passed away on Wednesday, June 17th at 1 pm Conakry time. This is a really challenging time for our family, but especially for Alseny who is deeply connected to her and is heartbroken that he could not be by her side in her last days on this earth. Fortunately, Alseny was able to travel to Guinea at the beginning of this year and spend some time with his Mom and family, which was truly a blessing!
In reflecting upon their life together Alseny has so many fond memories of his Mom who along with his Grandmother was the matriarch of their family. N’Gawa survived 3 husbands, raised 7 children, and was a source of love and support for 18 grandchildren. For over 35 years she lived in the same compound in downtown Conakry with family and neighbors of whom she became completely inter-dependent. Despite our many attempts to move her to a nicer, more spacious place, she always preferred to live in her little room that she shared with her unmarried daughters and handful of grandkids. Of all of Alseny’s memories, the one that is most evocative in his mind is from his visit in the spring of 2018 when he went home for Ramadan, the Muslin month of fasting and prayer. It had been 4 years and 4 months since Alseny was able to make the trip back to Guinea and N’Gawa was so excited to see him that she just started dancing as family friends gathered around to clap, cheer her on, and welcome Alseny home. This happened after her very first stroke so everyone was very joyful about this sudden burst of movement for multiple reasons.
Papa remembers his Grandma with the help of us filling in some blanks. He was named after N’Gawa’s first husband and Alseny’s Dad, Mamadouba Yansane, but N’Gawa liked to call him Mohamed, the nickname for her husband instead. Although she loved all of her grandbabies, N’Gawa had a special place in her heart for Papa and sometimes the other grand kids would be jealous of that! On one visit to our house that had an especially large living room, sparely furnished so that we would have enough room for dance lessons, N’Gawa brought a very hyper 2 year old Papa and her daughter’s son, Aboulaye. We had this plush, American mattress leaning against the wall out of the way so that we could dance and the boys got so excited, jumping on top of it, taking turns sliding down it like they were at the park. They had so much energy and were moving so fast and frantically, laughing and yelling loudly that I started to get a little headache, but N’Gawa just laughed and kept saying “those little rascals!”
I had the great honor of being N’Gawa’s daughter-in-law and she was my main reason and inspiration for learning Susu. During my first trip to Guinea in the year 2000 I lived a few months in Alseny’s family home in downtown Conakry and N’Gawa took such good care of me the whole time! Although she didn’t speak any French and my Susu at that time was very limited, it didn’t stop her from trying to talk to me or engage in beautiful acts of kindness, both big and small.
One of my most vivid memories of her at that time was how insistent she was about making sure I had a bucket of water on the ready so that I could wash up. I literally felt so conflicted about her doing this for me because I didn’t want her to fuss or have to go out of her way to make me feel comfortable, but she just wouldn’t have it any other way and that’s who she was, a genuine sweetheart, caregiver, and strong willed woman. Over time and as I became more proficient in Susu our relationship evolved and she was a big part of my life for the duration of my almost 7 year stay in Guinea. N’Gawa would visit Alseny and I every weekend and I would go downtown often to visit her regardless of whether Alseny was with me or not. She was kind, loving, friendly, strong, generous, well liked, was a stellar cook, and had a great sense of humor! She had this ongoing joke that she used to say while we waited together after a weekend visit for the overcrowded public transportation bus or “magbana” to arrive that her "personal taxi" was on the way. Although she could have taken an actual taxi that would have dropped her off at the closest, big intersection downtown, she preferred the “magbana” because despite the fact that it was a gutted van with 2 wooden benches that passengers squeezed on to fit in, its route went directly to her house.
N’Gawa was laid to rest on Thursday, June 18th and her big celebration of life will be on Sunday, June 28th. We were told that after she was placed in the ground and the final words were spoken, rain began pouring down the minute folks turned their backs away from the grave as they headed down the path out of the cemetery. This is just a stone’s throw away from where Alseny and I lived most of our collective time in Conakry. N'Gawa would visit us at that place in Camayenne frequently and at the end of each visit we'd walk with her to the "bus stop" and chat some more as she waited to catch her “magbana” ride home just across the street from where her body now lies. Alseny's older brother Ousmane, sounded so at peace when he was comforting us during that first phone call bearing the sad news saying, "all is well, our Mother has returned home."
Throughout Oregon, the United States, and all over the world there have been massive protests, rallies, and demonstrations sparked by the insidious murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and a myriad of other unarmed African Americans by law enforcement and for the centuries of violence and oppression perpetrated against Black people in this country.
We at WACAI believe in and affirm that all Black Lives Matter and that there is much work that needs to be done to dismantle systematic racism, social oppression, and white supremacy which is at the heart of these issues. We also acknowledge that we ourselves are still learning about how to do our part in the fight for racial justice and how to incorporate anti-racism in our organization’s programs. We also know that many of you are wanting to do something to amplify the voices of the Black community and help further the cause for racial equity, but may not know exactly how to go about doing this. Without a sustained collective effort and community engagement, starting locally, change will not occur, so it is important to do something!
One of the questions that I heard a guest speaker on NPR’s the “Take Away” say that helped center my desire to take more action was “Given who you are, what can you do?” We are still in the middle of a pandemic, for example, so not everyone is able to be out there on the front lines, protesting in the streets, but there are other actions and contributions that can be done to help turn the tide of racism, like educating oneself, speaking out, donating money, and supporting black businesses to name a few.
Below we have compiled some resources that we invite you to check out as a starting point since this is by no means an exhaustive list. Some of these resources include people from the local Black community that attend our classes and programs or who have partnered with WACAI over the years. They are out there working hard for a better, more just future and we need to show them our support and respect so that the slogan Black Lives Matter can be more than just a hashtag!
Black Led Action Coalition
NAACP Eugene Springfield OregonBlack Student Success Community Network
Urban League of Portland
EDUCATORSDr Johnny Lake
Dr Joy DeGruy
S. Renee Mitchell
UO Department of Indigenous, Race and Ethnic Studies
ES 250 Introduction to African-American Studies
ES 330 Women of Color Feminisms
ES 356 Race and Social Movements
ES 310 Race and Sex in Hip-Hop
ES 399 Black Sexual Politics
ES 440/540 Black and Brown Power
Black Girl from Eugene
It’s Been a Minute
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi
Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
BLACK BUSINESS GUIDE
Emily Hartlerode from the Oregon Folklife Network recently contacted WACAI to ask about how “traditional artists are adapting to virtual transmission during the shutdowns of the COVID-19 Pandemic?” WACAI had an excellent response to their very first Zoom 5 week drum course, but weighed in on some of the unseen challenges this transition to a virtual platform can bring to traditional artists.
One factor that has made the transition from in-person classes to an online version a little smoother is that everyone who registered is either a returning student who has experienced our classes vis-à-vis before or people we know from the community, so students can approximate or draw from our previous face-to-face contact as they study online. This is something that brand-new students just simply cannot do which makes engaging new students a little challenging because of the limited version that this virtual experience brings.
There are many ambient factors that occur in the in-person format that are very difficult, if not impossible to replicate in the online version. Take energy and spirit, for example. There is something powerful and palatable about being in the presence of traditional, source artists when they are teaching and working that doesn’t always come through when one is looking at a screen, experiencing delays due to poor internet connection, and sub-par sound due to the limitations of audio options on laptops and other devices. An online platform can also make it much harder for non-native English speaking artists to be as clearly understood as when being instructed in the flesh.
Another factor that has helped make the transition to a digital platform smoother is having organizational support. Being able to learn a new digital platform, create publicity and marketing that highlights benefits of this platform, and teach, train, and do test runs with students of all different ages who have never used these platforms before really takes a lot of organizational capacity, technical savoir-faire, English language skills, and time.
It is now more important than ever that traditional, source artists receive the support they need to not only feed their families here in the US and in their home countries, but to help them keep their art forms alive on virtual platforms so that they can continue to uplift and be uplifted.
Once again, we here at West African Cultural Arts Institute are sending warm wishes for you and your loved ones, hoping you are weathering this COVID-19 storm without any hardship and are experiencing great physical and mental health during this unsettling time! On a positive note, these “lock downs” have created the opportunity for WACAI to build an online platform for classes and potentially allow us to engage with even more people from all over! We will run our All-Levels African Drum 5 Week Course online with Zoom on Tuesdays from 5:30-7 pm PST, June 2, 9, 16, 23 & 30.
We’ve decided to use Zoom, a premiere video conferencing platform because it has live streaming which allows participants to see each other and interact a bit as well. It is user friendly and can be used with either a laptop, tablet, or smartphone!
As always, this class will be taught by Alseny Yansane, who has recently returned from a trip to Guinea and is excited to teach and connect with folks! Alseny will be joined by his prodigy son, Papa, who will help demonstrate how the different polyrhythmic parts are played together and by his wife, Andrea who will help moderate the class and handle any technical difficulties.
We really hope that you will join us for this online exploration as a way to not only keep up your drumming skills, but to connect to a larger community in this trying time and maintain a healthy mental, physical, and emotional state. This is an All-Levels class that will have something for everyone, regardless of level and experience, that is offered as a 5-week course. There are many benefits to committing to 5 weeks of lessons whose material builds upon each class, but the biggest benefits will be witnessing noticeable improvement of skills, having an outlet for self-expression, and carving a day and time out of your schedule to engage in some of the best immune system boosting self-care around! You will also be supporting a family of artists who sole income depends on community classes and school programs!
We understand that this is a hard time for many who have either lost jobs or suffered a decrease in work hours so we want to offer this on donation basis. The suggested amount for the course is $75 for adults and $60 for students for 7.5 hours of instruction, but we ask that folks give what they can.
WACAI will be taking payment on Venmo: WestAfrican-CulturalArts and PayPal: WestAfricanCulturalArts@gmail.com. To register and receive a link please email Andrea@WestAfricanCulturalArts.org or call/text 541.731.1278. Also, we know that getting set up with all these new digital platforms can be confusing so please don’t hesitate to contact Andrea to walk you through any of it and even do a Zoom test run! We are looking forward to connecting with you and thanks so much for your support!
On behalf of everyone here at West African Cultural Arts Institute wanted to reach out and let you know how the recent outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent recommendations for social distancing will be affecting our non-profit organization. First of all, we want to convey that we understand how difficult it is to be faced with so many uncertainties on top of the threat of or actual loss of income and employment. We truly hope that you and your families will be able to weather this storm with as much grace as possible and that you stay healthy and positive!
On another note, WACAI will be offering private lessons in drumming and dancing for adults and kids on-line. If you or anyone you know may be interested in keeping yourself or your kids who are at home right now active and engaged, please contact Andrea@WestAfricanCulturalArts.org or call Andrea @ 541.731.1278 to set this up. We will be using Zoom, the premiere virtual, interactive live stream class platform with payments made to Venmo: WestAfrican-CulturalArts or PayPal: WestAfricanCulturalArts@gmail.com.
Additionally, we will be offering our All-Levels African Drum 5 Week Course through Zoom. This class will be Tuesdays, April 7, 14, 21, 28 & May 5 from 5:45-7:15 pm.
We understand that the developments of the Corona virus are in flux so we are closely following the recommendations of health officials and local leaders and will adapt accordingly. In other words, if we receive notice that things are returning to normal before the class begins (which isn’t likely at this time) or before it ends, then we can switch from the on-line format to the regular in person class format.
Please stay tuned and subscribe to our e-newsletter so that you can receive our class updates!
Have you ever wanted to take an African drum class, but felt just a little bit intimidated? Well now is your chance to learn about the vibrant polyrhythms of Guinea, West Africa in a non-threatening atmosphere that is fun, encouraging, and inspirational for beginning and experienced drummers alike!
Join Alseny Yansane, dynamic teacher & fourteen year performing artist with world renowned Ballets Africains of Guinea as he offers a drum course that will teach all the basics for learning the West African poly-rhythmic orchestra including Djembe accompaniment parts, musical signals and arrangements, solo phrases and Dundun drum and bell parts. Papa Yansane andAndrea DiPalma Yansane will be assisting in the class to help Alseny demonstrate how the different drum parts line up to best model how they fit together musically. Drums are available for class use!
SOME CLASS OUTCOMES:
* improved hand position, posture and sound quality
*enhanced speed, endurance, manual dexterity
* increased ability to focus on specific drum parts
* capacity to hold steady while drumming in a poly-rhythmic group setting
* deeper understanding of the wealth and diversity of West African cultural arts
* relaxation, enjoyment & self-expression
Tuesdays, April 7, 14, 21, 28 & May 5
Online platform: Zoom
$75 for pre-paid 5 week course (7.5 hours of instruction)
$60 students w/ valid ID for pre-paid 5 week course (7.5 hours of instruction)
Payment made via
Venmo: WestAfrican-CulturalArts or
To register or get more info call Andrea @ 541.731.1278 or email Andrea@WestAfricanCulturalArts.org
Click here for photos of previous Drum Courses!
Nestled in the exquisite Sierra Nevada mountains, 50 miles east of Fresno, just 7 miles outside of King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Park at 4,300 feet lays Camp Hye Sierra, home of CAMP FARETA. Camp Fareta, which is celebrating its 13th summer is a residential workshop hosted by Youssouf Koumbassa, a master dancer, choreographer, and teacher from Guinea featuring other high-level drum and dance artists and instructors from Mali, Senegal, the Congo, and Zimbabwe.
Students of West African drum and dance come from all over the country and even the world to enjoy taking a variety of classes of different levels and styles from authentic, source teaching artists in a beautiful and rustic setting. There are between 8-10 dance and drum classes offered everyday in beautiful spots spread throughout the camp, including the famous pavilion which is know for the wonderful breeze that comes off of the glistening water of the nearby lake. Camp Fareta has a wonderful “kids’ camp” that engages children through group activities and crafts as well as teaches them about important life lessons through facilitated activities and group talks. Some favorite kid activities include making tie-dye shirts, bracelets, taking special drum classes, and preparing a piece for the annual talent show.
Besides the wonderful gem of the taking classes from and mixing and mingling with such fabulous teaching artists, other favorite camp activities include shopping in a pop up outdoor African bizarre, song circles, late night drum jams, star gazing, swimming, watching the talent show, boogieing down at Club Fareta, and participating in the culminating Dundunba event with opportunities to improvise in the dance solo circle.
One of the most transformative energies of being together in our little village for that week in August derive from the deep the connections created between participants through mutual love, support, and respect as we eat, play, learn, and grow together. It is a truly magical experience!
The second week in August marked the inaugural year of Black Gold Culture Camp, an immersive summer camp for middle school youth of color. The camp is designed to build strong community bonds between participants during this four-day period by teaching positive aspects of African and African American culture through daily, hands on workshops on black history and art movements as well as leadership, civic involvement, and environmental justice.
West African Cultural Arts Institute joined approximately 16 middle school students, 5 high school camp counselors, and 10 other dedicated and passionate staff members from the NAACP and other partners like Beyond Toxics to offer Guinean drum and dance workshops at Camp White Branch, a beautiful wooded, full equipped camp located up the Old McKenzie Highway.
The daily schedule was a perfect balance of intensive workshops and free time. After breakfast each day all camp goers participated in the environmental justice workshop segment that included learning lots of important information about pollution, climate change, Oregon’s native ecosystems, and the emerging green economy while engaging in activities like hiking through the forest to a gorgeous cascading water fall, creating, then destroying a web of life, and sharing what small, but impactful changes can be made to decrease the carbon footprint.
After a short break filled with active games like badminton, tether ball, volleyball, and basketball or more quiet and reflective ones like reading, journaling, or participating in casual group discussions kids ate lunch and prepared for their leadership course with Dr. Johnny Lake and Jason Floyd. The leadership course really helped kids transition out of their comfort zone and transform into more confident individuals who could address the entire group while maintaining eye contact through a variety of active lessons that simultaneously challenged the youth yet fostered a safe environment to grow. The kids were led through a series of group activities and interactive games that included trust walks, blind folded partner interactions, African American bingo, and imaginary political campaigning exercises to develop the skills of an effective leader.
The daily workshop series culminated with WACAI’s fully engaging drum and dance classes that included the traditional cultural background of each rhythm and dance and the names and functions of each instrument in the percussive, poly-rhythmic orchestra. Through the expert facilitation of Alseny Yansane, WACAI’s Artistic Director and primary Teaching Artist drummers alternated from playing with the entire group to smaller groups to one-by-one try's to really get the flavor of Guinean drumming while receiving individual attention and group support. The dance segment had everyone out of their seats moving to the beat of live drumming while smiling and sweating in the sunshine of the big open field in the heart of the camp. At the end of each class Taryn Lacy, a recent graduate from UO School of Music tied in contemporary music movements, like jazz and hip-hop to demonstrate specific examples of how African American music has strong links to the music originating from the African continent and the importance of this legacy in the Diaspora.
For the second year in a row WACAI is joining two other teaching artists to bring the performance arts of Guinea, West Africa to kids grades 1-8 in the Veneta community at All About Art Summer Camp. This three-week, hands-on camp, presented by Lane Arts Council, offers safe and fun, experiences in visual and performing arts that promotes creativity, self-expression, and teamwork.
This year’s theme is “Taking Flight” and students explore this as they sculpt flying animals in clay, construct wearable wings from painted silk, explore birds through watercolor, and experience playmaking, theatre, drumming, dancing, and singing.
We start the day with an opening circle where teaching artists share what they will be covering that day then the kids break into three different groups who rotate through the three medias in 45-minute classes. This week in addition to learning about the cultural arts from Guinea, students also do watercolor and create puppets. On Thursday, our final day, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned to their parents and community after morning classes in a fun and exciting presentation follwed by a popcicle party.
Students have really enjoyed our class and we’ve had a lot of fun teaching them various drum parts and dance steps as well as how to play a traditional Guinean shaker and sing in the call and response style. Carter, who will be going into 1st grade was overheard exclaiming, “I love this class the most; it’s the funnest!” Additionally, its great to bear witness to kids who are always vying to be the last one standing in the “Pass the Bass” challenge so that they can go head to head with Alseny in a drum battle where they have to copy him to the best of their ability, including note for note beats and silly gestures.
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This past Saturday, August 8 WACAI participated for the first time in the Willamalane Children’s Celebration. This annual event is traditionally held in person every August at Day Island Park in downtown Springfield, but due to the physical distancing regulations this year’s event was done in a drive through format at Dorris Ranch. Dorris Ranch is a national historic site, a living history farm, and a public park complete with walking trails and natural areas. The park is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a beautiful area of open space combined with tress and other local foliage of all kinds. This year’s event was done in a “reverse parade” fashion where pairs of cars visited ten different stations spread across the property to enjoy a two-minute presentation before rolling on to the next spot. Presenters consisted of performers like WACAI and puppeteer, Noah McLain Philpot from the Lane Arts Council’s roster and community organizations, like the Springfield Public Library who dressed in fairy tale costumes and gave books away to the Springfield Fire Department who gave demonstrations in fire safety and prevention using simulated flames.
The event which ran from 10 am-12:30 pm entertained a total of 150 vehicles filled with children and their families who arrived in pairs at each station and processed on a dirt road through the long loop of the ranch. WACAI was stationed at a wonderful shady spot just on the edge of a fabulous Filbert grove and enjoyed performing in this unique style which was a creative solution to holding the celebration in the midst of a global pandemic. It was super fun for WACAI to perform 2 minutes of powerful drum rhythms to a “new” audience every few minutes, see the excitement and enthusiasm on their faces as they drove up, and recognize several of their previous students from the Art-in-the-Schools residency work they do in partnership with Lane Arts Council. Children were given swag bags which were stocked with fun toys, and other festive gear, including shakers that allowed the kids to jam alongside of us. Sarah Amoson, Willamalane’s organizer of the event was very please with the turn out and participant response saying, “We saw so much joy expressed by the guests as they watched the incredible performances and took home the goodie bags that we filled with all the wonderful activities, treats, and valuable information that sponsors and presenters provided. You are all a huge part in what makes our community incredible, and we cannot thank you enough coming out to support Willamalane and the Springfield community in offering this event!”
Polaris Dance Theatre held its 10th Annual Galaxy Dance Festival this weekend and in response to the social distancing regulations that are in place, went VIRTUAL! The festival which was aired on Facebook Live was filled with a diverse schedule of dance companies that included genres such as West African, Bollywood, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, Kathak and Afro-Brazilian, Contemporary, and more. The organizations that presented dance pieces hailed from Oregon, Washington, New York, Canada, and beyond! For the first time, participants were able to participate in a Q & A, listen to insight from the artists and their choreographers, and explore the rich diversity that dance has to offer the world, all from the comfort of their own home! WACAI kicked off the Virtual Festival at 11 am with two video clips; one of Alseny doing a solo to the rhythm Yamama at the Oregon Country Fair’s Gypsy Stage and one of Ballets Africains dancing Fere Koroba at the Centre Culturel Franco-Guineen in the capital city of Conakry. Because of a previous commitment, Alseny wasn’t able to attend the festival’s live stream, but conducted an interview a few days prior and the transcript was read instead at the time of the Q & A. To read the interview transcript translated into English from Susu, Alseny’s native language and learn more about Alseny’s former training and life in Guinea, read on!
Question: Can you tell the audience a little bit about yourself?
Alseny Yansane: My name is Alseny Yansane. I come from Guinea, West Africa and was born and raised in the capital city of Conakry. I am from the Susu people which is the third largest ethnic group in Guinea. I worked with the world-renowned Ballets Africains for fourteen years and have traveled to many places around the globe to represent traditional Guinean culture like you saw in the first video. I love the dance, music, and culture from my homeland and am passionate about sharing it with audiences and students who are receptive and respectful.
Question: Can you describe what your training in Guinea looked like?
Alseny Yansane: My training actually began as a drummer when I was around seven years old. In Guinea we say that the drumming and the dancing are married together so you cannot have one without the other. As a kid with very little means I learned to play the traditional rhythms on really big, empty tomato paste cans flipped upside down. Back then my older brother had a drum and dance group who played at folkloric events, that celebrated rites of passage like weddings and baby naming ceremonies which inspired me to form my own group with kids from my neighborhood. Our group would walk from neighborhood to neighborhood challenging the groups of kids we would find gathered outside to a drum and dance battle and always seemed to win. Shortly afterwards, my older brother invited me to join his group and I learned a lot through watching him drum and dance and by just getting out there to show what I had learned in local and regional competitions.
I am thankful to have come up as an artist in the time of Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president. Historically, this was an era when art and cultural appreciation and cultivation were at an all-time high and the training that artists received was rigorous and systematic. We had to compete on a national level annually as a way of moving up to higher levels of artistic status. These competitions were held in the heart of downtown Conakry where I lived and attracted groups from all over Guinea who represented specific art and culture from various regions and ethnic groups. Over the years I worked with numerous “private ballets” before I was recruited to and passed the audition for entry into Ballets Africains, one of four national companies at the time.
Question: What would your average day look like?
Alseny Yansane: A typical day in a life for me would look something like this: I would get up in the morning and make my way by foot to rehearsal, sometimes walking over an hour to get there. Meeting up with other artists along the way en route to rehearsal and talking amongst ourselves made the long walk much shorter. Often times I would leave the house without eating any breakfast because my family didn’t have the means to provide too much more than the main, mid-day meal of rice and sauce. This is how it was for most of us artists in Guinea. We’d get by through sharing just about everything, especially food, so if I wasn’t able to eat at home or if I didn’t have any pocket money from a gig the night before, someone in the group would help me get something into my belly before it started to ache.
Our drum and dance rehearsals would be for 2-3 hours Monday-Friday, sometimes even on Saturday and were held in multi-purpose buildings whose cement or tile floors would be in various stages of disrepair. Even so, we always danced barefoot and did all kinds of acrobatics, like dive rolls and flips on that hard surface and there were no tumbling mats! After my morning rehearsal where I trained very intensely ended, I would have some time to make my way to the next rehearsal of the group where I was Artistic Director, stopping off at a friend’s house to eat some rice and sauce and possibly take a nap.
After the second rehearsal I would typically go home to regroup and get ready for my folkloric group’s evening gig. I was the General Director of my folkloric group which meant I was responsible for sub-contracting all of the artists who included traditional drummers, praise singers, guitarists, balafonists, keyboard players, and dancers. I also had to communicate and plan the event with the person who did the hiring and negotiate the price. I also had to find a sound system to rent and an available technician to do sound for the event as well as do the maintenance and repair on the outdoor lighting. This literally involved a lot of leg work leading up to the event due to the fact that home phones didn’t really exist and cell phones technology hadn’t made its way to Guinea yet. During the gig I would play drums, manage the artists and crowd energy. At the end of the gig I would count and divide up the money collected from the various guests putting tips into the platter during their praise song processions, pay the artists, and get all the equipment back home. The next day I’d wake up and do it all again!
Question: You had mentioned earlier your involvement in private ballets and national groups. Can you explain what a “private ballet” is and how it differs from a national company?
Alseny Yansane: Guinea has 2 types of traditional drumming and dancing: village style and ballet style. In the village style, drummers play the traditional rhythms at community celebrations where guests circle around and jump into the middle one-by-one or two-by-two to dance only one or two simple moves before yielding the dance space to someone else. The ballet style was developed in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city where musical arrangements were created to embellish village rhythms and complex dance steps were created and strung together in long dance sequences to fill a stage with choreography and technical floor patterns.
In ballet style, there are “private ballets” which are also known as amateur groups that feed into the “national ballets” which are professional companies that are sponsored by the Guinean government and have national and international touring companies that are considered to be “cultural ambassadors”. Even though the national companies are sponsored by the government, unfortunately, only the administrative staff receives a small stipend and the artists remain for the most part, unpaid.
Question: How has recent events affected you as an artist or your work?
Alseny Yansane: The Corona virus has made it very difficult for me as an artist. Since the shut down in March I have had contracts for school residencies and performances cancelled and haven’t been able to teach my community classes in the same way as before. Our organization has offered several online options, but they just don’t seem to translate in the same way as in person and it has taken some trial and error to work through various technical difficulties. I really look forward to a time when folks can get together to drum and dance freely without the fear of getting sick!
Also, since the death of George Floyd and the others I have experienced both positive and negative changes. On the one hand it’s great to see an increase in support for Black Lives Matter, but I have also felt the effects of the backlash. I don’t always feel safe going outside to get the exercise I need to stay fit as a dancer because I have been harassed recently and I sometimes feel like a target because there aren’t many black folks in Oregon so I stand out. The studio where I teach my dance classes has been vandalized with racial slurs and that makes me nervous for myself and my 16-year-old son as well as our black students. As an African immigrant I have a different history of being black and it has been very sad and depressing to learn about the reality of race relations here in the US. Sometimes it just makes me want to leave and go back to Guinea.
On the positive side, there seems to be an increase in white communities and organizations to do better by us and make more of an effort to support and highlight our work. I really appreciate this a lot as it makes the severity of everything we are dealing with more manageable. I urge folks to continue to come through for us because we have a long road ahead and need justice in order to be truly free as artists and as people.
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As the first installment of the Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series, WACAI’s Executive Director, Andrea DiPalma Yansane had the privilege to interview Baba Wague Diakite on a live stream between Zoom and Facebook Live on Thursday, October 15. The Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series is a partnership between West African Cultural Arts Institute, Oregon Folklife Network, and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History designed to shine attention on seven Black cultural artists throughout the state of Oregon to elevate their work and discuss how racism affects their lives. Our first featured artist is Baba Wague Diakite, a Multi-media artist from Mali, West Africa. Baba has been living and practicing his various artforms in Portland for over 35 years, has had a robust career, and a prolific body of work. He engages in diverse mediums such as mud cloth, ceramics, mural painting, and illustrating children’s books, while always keep the common theme of storytelling.
There is a very strong tradition of storytelling in Baba’s family line and he starts the interview off with a beautiful homage to his grandparents, noting particularly that his grandmother who was also an herbalist and village doctor, was a huge influence in his life. Both grandparents were farmers as well as storytellers. In Mali and in other countries throughout West Africa there is a tradition for youth to learn about their genealogy by returning to their family’s village for an extended stay during holidays or recesses from school. During that era in the 1960’s Baba worked with his grandparents in the fields farming peanuts and rice by day and joining a crush of cousins and elders around the fire for the “nightly excitement” of hearing the age old stories being passed down by night. Baba likes to think of these nights of storytelling like his “first movie” experience since these stories were funny, educational, and scary and spoke of all beings living in harmony with self and others, including animals and spirits. Baba talks about how his grandmother was deeply committed to educating the children in her midst about the traditional ways of Mali that date back to over 400 years ago, long before the Western influences of French colonialism. She would say, “you have to be educated to go to school” meaning you have to know about Mali’s rich history and learn about Mali’s old ways first and foremost to make sure you do not lose the connection to your roots and heritage that the colonists were striving to erase through indoctrination.
It was his grandmother who taught Baba the art of making “mud cloth”, a craft that marries storytelling and visual arts through traditional narrative imagery. Mud cloth, or Bogolanfini in Baba’s native language of Bambara is a handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. This natural dye produces a sundry of earth tone colors that range from all shades of black to rusty brown to yellow and orange and has become a big part of Malian identity. Baba shares the origin story of how mud cloth came to be, saying that a hunter followed an antelope into a muddy pool while resolutely pursuing it. The hunter lost track of the animal in the quagmire, but upon returning to the village it was discovered how beautifully and permanently his woven clothes had been transformed and a new tradition was born. Baba also shared that traditional attire can also be dyed with indigo, a native tropical plant whose leaves produce a distinctive blue color that was originally associated with royalty. Traditional outfits were also brewed in water solutions steeped with powerful herbs to enhance the colors as well as provide a magical protective quality against the “evil eye”, a belief that a malevolent glare from an envious or hateful person will cause injury or misfortune . These herbal concoctions are also believed to invoke the spirits of the forest from where these herbs were collected and the spirits of the water present in the dyebaths.
Like mud cloth, other artforms that Baba uses as a medium to tell stories are ceramics and mural painting. His clay platters, pots, and sculptures depict nostalgic memories from his childhood and a mindful connection to the animal kingdom and spirit world. In his vibrant mural located in Portland’s largest affordable housing complex housed in the Lloyd District, Baba honors Louisa Flowers, a respected African American pioneer who settled in Oregon in the late 1800’s. Her family was one of the first black families to own property on Portland’s east side and they operated a farm and built homes near the place where this new building stands today.
When talking about being an artist in Oregon Baba says it is most important for him to stay connected to his roots in Mali while he introduces people to new expressions of artforms and visual ways of communicating the connection of all beings. He says that artmaking is his “passport” and path to mutual support and happiness. He is quick to point out, however, that as an African immigrant he has experienced many challenges along the way. In his approximate words Baba says, unlike African Americans who are born in the US, as an African I did not see the less overt manifestations of racism at first, but as time passed, I learned. Specific examples of this is the pattern he began to recognize of chronic, superficial interactions and indirect communication. Baba has lived in Portland for over 35 years and speaks English fluently and articulately yet feels like he isn’t much closer to most (white) people in his community who he has known since the time of his arrival. He talks openly about the phenomena of people’s preference to go through another (white) person to communicate with him or ask about how he is doing rather than asking him directly, saying, “it’s insulting.” He states that as a Black man who has lived under (racial) stress and has struggled for a long time, he found immediate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
When asked about the relationship between his artwork and the greater social justice movement Baba talks about how the community aspect of people coming together is a overarching theme of all his work, especially his story telling, found in the oral tradition and the children’s book illustrations. Towards the top of the interview he spoke of Mali as an “open society” where apart from sleeping most of life’s activities are conducted outside the house, out in the open. Throughout West Africa rather than individuals living in single family houses, people live in compounds where many different families live in homes that radiate off an outdoor, commonly shared courtyard. Domestic activities like cooking and washing clothes by hand are either done in the courtyard or in the veranda areas. All social gatherings including weddings and baby naming ceremonies are held outside and are public, not private events. This creates an environment where people openly air their grievances with the moderation of an elder and is carried out in the presence of many others. Problems tend to get squashed so that everyone can go back to normal communal living. Because the open society model doesn’t exist in the United States Baba started a tea ceremony in his own home for the purpose of bringing people together to share their stories and talk about troubling issues. Another arena where Baba combines his activism and artwork is witnessed through the founding of Ko-Falen Cultural Center whose mission is to promote cultural, artistic, and educational exchanges between people in the U.S. and Mali through their locations in Portland, Oregon and Bamako, Mali. Ko-Falen means “gift exchange” in the Bambara language which perfectly characterizes the value of shared experiences between countries and cultures.
In concluding the interview Baba mentioned a few specific actions that readers like yourself can do to support Black visual artists. Individuals can purchase artwork created by Black artist and take their hands on art classes, galleries can display more work of Black artists, and schools and institutions can hire Black artists to teach, do installations, murals, and produce other artwork to bolster support and put money into the Black community. He also said that its important to take time to get to know people of color in the community being mindful not make assumptions about their lives and speaking directly and openly. Another action to take to support Baba specifically is follow Babe Wague and Ko-Falen on Facebook and Instagram, visit BabaWague.wordpress.com, and share his wonderful work with your social networks.
Thursday, October 15 until the end of November WACAI will be engaging in a small series of interviews, blogs, and social media posts designed to put a spotlight on seven Black cultural artists throughout the state of Oregon to elevate their work and discuss how racism affects their lives. This series is a partnership between West African Cultural Arts Institute and
Thursday, October 15 until the end of November WACAI will be engaging in a small series of interviews, blogs, and social media posts designed to put a spotlight on seven Black cultural artists throughout the state of Oregon to elevate their work and discuss how racism affects their lives. This series is a partnership between West African Cultural Arts Institute and Oregon Folklife Network (OFN), a program of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History. OFN which is housed in the Knight Library on the University of Oregon campus is a nonprofit organization that makes a meaningful difference in Oregon communities and Tribes by documenting, supporting, and celebrating diverse cultural traditions and by empowering tradition-bearers.
Their programs like Culture Fest, Traditional Artist Apprenticeship Program, and the Statewide Folklife Survey give paid opportunities to traditional artists and “culture keepers” around the state. Their Culture Keepers OFN's Culture Keepers Roster is an online, juried selection of excellent folk and traditional artists and cultural experts documented through OFN’s regional surveys and outreach. This curated Roster features only those with strong cultural ties to their traditional art forms committed to preserving and perpetuating those cultural forms. Cultural artists must demonstrate excellent craftsmanship and the ability to share traditions through public demonstrations, performances, and presentations.
While OFN promotes many different “Culture Keepers” that range from Native Basket Weavers and Storytellers to Chinese Rod Puppetry, from Palestinian Embroidery to Andean Instrument Making, from Fisher Poetry to Buckaroo Gear Makers, and from Norwegian Chefs to Mexican Ballet Folklorico, this series features Black culture keepers as part of a campaign to amplify Black voices at a time when people are paying better attention to issues of systemic inequality.
Folk and traditional arts are everyday practices that connect people to their heritage in meaningful ways. These artists practice commonplace culture at a level of expertise that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary. We are honored to feature Norman Sylvester (R & B musician), Mic Crenshaw (MC, poetry slam and Hip Hop artist), LaRhonda Steele (gospel singer), Wambui Machua (Kenyan chef), Baba Wague Diakite (Malian multi-media artist), and Alseny and Papa Yansane (Guinean drummers).
WACAI will be conducting two interviews that will be broadcast as a live stream on Facebook Live. One will be with Baba Wague Diakite October 15 and the other will be with WACAI’s own, Alseny and Papa Yansane on October 22. Both interviews will be on these two consecutive Thursdays from 7-7:30 pm and can be viewed on West African Cultural Arts Institute’s Facebook page. Tune in this Thursday and next to learn more about these talented artists from Mali and Guinea, see their work, and learn what it is like for them to live here in Oregon as Black people. Each week following, the four other Portland based artists will be featured through blogs, social media posts, and aired pre-recorded interviews.
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