Arts & Culture

Festival presents traditional dance to an activist rhythm

Malian culture meets theme of “The Urban Body in Crisis” in Rhythm of Change festival

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Combining West African percussion, the chants of toddlers and the elderly and the enthusiastic dances of students and professionals, the Rhythm of Change festival celebrated the fusion of activism and Mande dance this weekend.

The annual festival first began in 2010, when students from TAPS 0330: “Mande Dance, Music and Culture” worked with international social justice groups to create alliances between performers and social advocates from Mali, according to the event’s website. The festival invites artists, students and activists to engage in educational and creative workshops and shows.

This year’s participants included Seydou Coulibaly, a professional Malian dancer, and was hosted by Michelle Bach-Coulibaly, senior lecturer in theater, speech and dance — both help run the Yeredon Center for Malian Arts in Bamako, Mali.

“It is a co-curricular, community-based festival heavily rooted in the Mande dance class,” she said. The course focuses largely on theatrical, cultural and traditional forms of dance, but students require a more immersive experience as well, Bach-Coulibaly said. Rhythm of Change is structured like a festival in Mali, beginning Friday afternoon and ending Sunday night, she added.

A Malian festival is a “cathartic experience” in which every villager plays a part to address issues confronting the community, she said.

Rhythm of Change is important because it provides exposure for West African tradition, Coulibaly said. “Not many students have a chance to go to a Mande dance class,” he added. “It brings culture to the people.”

Jamal Jackson ’00, who performed at the festival, studied dance under both Coulibaly and Bach-Coulibaly and went on to found the Jamal Jackson Dance Company. While a student at Brown, Jackson became involved in the Fusion Dance Company and New Works/World Traditions African Dance Company.

“I continue to investigate the relationship between traditional and contemporary movement styles,” Jackson wrote in an email to The Herald, adding that he appreciated the effort to combine tradition with the contemporary experience.

This year, the theme of Rhythm of Change was “The Urban Body in Crisis,” which, like in years past, was inspired by recent artists’ writings.

“It refers to the concept that in urban centers around the world, the bodies of the people in the cities are often under siege — overcrowding, disease, police brutality (and) poverty,” wrote Gabriel Spellberg ’13.5 in an email to The Herald.

Rhythm of Change focuses on “how dance can be used to resist this attack on human bodies by bringing people together to form community through the physical dancing,” he added.

Because this year is Brown’s 250th anniversary, the festival coordinators sought to bring back former students involved in Mande dance who had developed their own followings, Bach-Coulibaly said, adding that more than 25 alums returned with their own work.

They also invited artists with a variety of cultural experiences, like Orman Mizrani, an American Vogue Femme dancer and choreographer. Vogue Femme, a style of dance, is a “political intervention” between homophobia and the self, Bach-Coulibaly said. “It studies the feminine form in patriarchal terms and highlights the feminine and masculine in everyone.”

Breakdancer Ana “Rokafella” Garcia led a panel showcasing a few clips from her documentary, which follows women in the male-dominated breakdancing world, and ended with a hip-hop lesson. Her work seeks to challenge gender norms and focuses on “renegotiating patrimonial art forms,”  Bach-Coulibaly said.

Other dance forms featured at the festival were house dance, hip-hop, contemporary African and traditional African dance. The “cross-gendered performances” empowered each other’s philosophies and “aesthetics of oppression,” Bach-Coulibaly explained. For example, one routine drew attention to incarceration and racial profiling.

The two-year anniversary of the Malian coup d’etat also influenced the festival. In 2012, low-ranking Malian soldiers deposed the elected government due to frustration at the lack of equipment provided to fight a growing rebel movement, according to the New York Times.

Jihadists invaded Mali and destroyed music and instruments, even cutting off artists’ hands, Bach-Coulibaly said, adding that many artists fled to Paris or the United States or remained in refugee camps in West Africa. The festival aims to bring some of these individuals to Brown.

Music has the power to spark collaboration and action, she added. For example, the youth movement in Senegal played a role in ousting the country’s president.

“They rallied around young rap artists,” she said. “It’s like waking up a sleeping giant.”

Many Rhythm of Change participants have their own projects in Mali to help tell the truth about the coup. For example, Brown’s Mande dance class raises money for cattle and other essential resources for villagers, Bach-Coulibaly said.

As for next year, “things are percolating,” Bach-Coulibaly said. “Conflict resolution is something I really want to focus on.”

In the future, Bach-Coulibaly said Rhythm of Change hopes to bring hip-hop artist Amkoullel, who has captured the spirit of Malian youth who have been hurt by the country’s political instability and face a lack of education, unemployment and disenfranchisement.

The festival also plans to bring Swanee Hunt, President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Austria. Hunt founded Women Waging Peace, an organization that trains female scholars in leadership skills, Bach-Coulibaly said.

Rhythm of Change “brings like-minded people together who realize the power of celebration,” Bach-Coulibaly said. Her favorite moments as a professor involve watching people who have never met make connections and forge new relationships, she said. Rhythm of Change opens up a space for negotiation and dialogue.

“These are things I love, things I will fight for, to see that happen,” she said. “It is important to create a space for Brown students to come home and dance together.”

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