Musicians, dancers and other performers from around the world will gather at Brown for the Rhythm of Change Festival March 5–7. Presented by the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, with additional help from the Creative Arts Council and the Brown International Organization, the weekend-long event seeks to unite a wide range of artists, social entrepreneurs and educators from Africa, America and the Caribbean to use the power of performance for social change.
The festival will feature a series of workshops and performances, including Burundian dance, Djembe drumming and discussions about hip-hop as a force for change in Western Africa. Among the main events will be the Africa for Haiti Benefit Concert on Saturday night featuring Troupe Komee Josee from Mali and a dance performance by Rwandan children on Sunday.
"It is very, very hard not to be moved by a group of young children who have just come to this country running from genocide joyously sharing this dance," said Senior Lecturer in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Michelle Bach-Coulibaly. They have an "ability to transcend trauma through their performance. There is a sense of engagement and of breaking down the boundaries of race, class and gender."
According to Bach-Coulibaly, the roots of the festival can be traced back to the 1989–1990 academic year, when she, along with a diverse group of professors from various University departments, collaborated to create a course on the dance and culture of the Mande, a fairly large West African ethnic group.
Spread throughout the countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and others, the Mande people have a strong tradition of performance art, Bach-Coulibaly said. As a student of West African dance, she said she was initially fascinated by the way that "performance is used in that society to negotiate very difficult social issues, including gender incongruities and global invasion." The Mande people "utilize performance to bring the community together and heal," she added.
A team of professors and students was able to raise a significant amount of money, even receiving a grant, to develop the course, which would become a huge success. Since then, the course has been offered continuously, enrolling nearly 2,000 students over a span of 20 years. This semester, 137 students are registered for TSDA 0330: "Mande Dance, Music and Culture," according to Banner.
Aside from learning the various dance and performance styles of this ethnic group, students in the course are paired with an organization that does humanitarian work in these Mande communities, particularly in Mali, according to Matthew Garza '11, a teaching assistant for the class. They also organize raffles to raise money, design projects and otherwise help their cause through performance-based methods.
Garza, who has traveled to Mali as part of an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award project, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the main goal of the course is to foster "awareness about circumstances and movements in West Africa and to take action through performative deliberation."
The festival serves as a vehicle to provoke dialogue about these issues and get other members of the community to appreciate the role of performance in enacting social change and perhaps become involved themselves, according to Bach-Coulibaly and Garza.
Bach-Coulibaly said the festival would allow people to see the importance of building community. "Instead of sound bites and stereotypes, this is about real people engaging with each other outside of those constructed bits of communication. It's about real communication between people."
Garza said he hoped the event would not only encourage students to "engage in transnational collaboration and action" but also "to learn from some of the world's most amazing musicians, artists, dancers and social activists."
As Bach-Coulibaly describes it, the festival will be "a weekend of immersion, collaboration and participation."