By Kristina Fazzalaro
Arts & Culture Editor
The pounding rhythms of bare feet echo throughout the small studio, the thunderous beats heightened by the driving pulse of Malian drumming and the dancers' exuberant energy as they twist, jump and clap to the music's commands. "Ka Mali Don" — the 2011 Festival of Mande Performance and Social Engagement — celebrated Malian culture, dance and activism Friday and Saturday in Ashamu Dance Studio.
In addition to dynamic musical and dance performances and workshops, this year's "African Performance Weekend" incorporated discussions on Mali's culture. The festival, sponsored by the Department of Theater Arts and Performance Studies, also encouraged students and attendees to discuss social, political and health issues surrounding Mali through volunteering and donation.
Cherif Keita gave the keynote lecture — "Locating Mande Performance on the Global Stage" — to an intimate gathering composed mainly of students from TAPS 1280T: "Contemporary Mande Performance" on Saturday. Mande refers to several Western African ethnic groups.
Michelle Bach-Coulibaly, senior lecturer in theater, speech and dance and artistic director of the festival, introduced Keita. The festival is about the "intersection of performance and service to Africa," she said.
Keita discussed the country's history of performance and the role of Malian identity in shaping artists, such as Salif Keita, who he described as "one of the most beautiful voices of Mali and Africa."
"I am speechless," he said. "The energy I've felt in this room … and this campus about Mali … I'm happy and honored to bring my small contribution to Brown."
Keita began his talk with a discussion on language, explaining that he would be using many Malian words throughout the talk so that they could "really understand the culture, understand the language," he said. He even passed out a glossary of useful terms to students.
The Mande people believe while one is born a person, one develops a personhood — an identity known as a togo, Keita explained. The togo is in constant contention with the jamu, or clan name, which each person inherits.
"Your ears are older than yourself," Keita said. "The ears can hear things that come from way back." It is this legacy which defines people until they attain their togo, their personal renown. Their togo then becomes part of the next generation's jamu from which they can hear and learn.
"That's how society evolves — a spiral that goes up," he said.
He also discussed the role of the hero in Malian culture, the duality of action and speech, the role of women and family and dance's position in society.
"Dance is really something of nature," he said. "Dankili, the word for song, means ‘a call to dance.' It is accessible to everyone, a part of life."
Keita's warm, passionate speech was rich in its explanations and entertaining in his playful, upbeat interactions with the audience.
The crowd cheered as he wound down. His warm thanks and encouragements to the students and department members interspersed with applause. He jokingly capped off his talk, "I hope you all come to Mali one day because maybe everything I told you was lies."
Laughter carried workshop participants to their afternoon classes, where Malian percussionists and dancers brought Keita's words to life on the dance floor.