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Children learn African heritage to beat of drum


Kevin Campbell beat on the wooden drum, called out, and listened for a response.

The reply was tepid. "Ye bally o."

He stopped.

A musician opens his spirit, he told the audience. "The last thing you would ever do is not respond to the call."

In a few minutes, the seven children sitting in a circle at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, were responding enthusiastically.

"A la wa kinte bally o," they concluded triumphantly.

"That's great," Mr. Campbell told them. "You've just learned your first African song."

Before the two-week course concludes, the children, ranging from ages 8 to 13, will have learned the steps and drum rhythms to two African dances.

Mr. Campbell and dance instructor Sylvia Hall hope the children learn something else as well: a better understanding of their heritage.

The class is part of Maryland Hall's effort to reach beyond the symphony and opera aficionados and touch more diverse audiences.

The course is called Kuumba, which refers to a Zimbabwean proverb: If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.

Kuumba is being offered to children in the afternoons and teen-agers and adults Tuesdays and Thursday evenings.

Lisa "Cookie" Washington, an Annapolis resident who brought her daughter to the first class last week, was excited about the course. Recently she had been at a church retreat and saw African dancing and wished something like that could be offered in Annapolis.

Then she happened to call Maryland Hall and inquire about a photography class for her 10-year-old daughter. The photography course had been canceled, but she was told about the African dance class.

She quickly signed up her daughter and enrolled herself in the adult class.

"It appeals to me that I can do something to identify with my African culture," she said.

Toya Carpenter, 13, heard about the course at her middle school and decided to try it. "I like different dances," she said.

"I always wanted to be in an African dance class," said 8-year-old Raven Barnes, the youngest class member.

On the first day, she showed up wearing ballet shoes. Ms. Hall told her to take off the shoes. A half hour later, the spritely little girl in braids had reached her conclusion about African dance: "Excellent."

In the two-week course, Ms. Hall is teaching the children a manjoni, a happy harvest dance from Guinea, and lamba, a wedding dance from Senegal.

Ms. Hall, a performer from Washington, says African dance is not dance for it's own sake, rather it tells stories about important moments in people's lives -- their harvests, weddings, funerals.

"There is a purpose," said Ms. Hall, who is a member of the WoSe Africa Dance Company and the Paul Kengmo African Dance Company.

After a brief warm-up, Ms. Hall lined the children up for the manjoni. "Keep your eyes and ears open and watch my feet," she instructed.

Back and forth the children marched barefoot across the room, glancing at themselves in long mirrors on the walls as Ms. Hall counted out the four-count rhythm.

After mastering the footwork, the students began to swing their arms in a circle, imitating the movements Ms. Hall made as she danced in front of them.

At last, they stopped. The children swarmed around two fans at the end of the room to cool off.

"It's tiring," Toya said.

The students were able to rest their feet as Mr. Campbell started to tell them about African drumming, which he said is inseparable from the dancing.

He showed them the instruments and explained how to strike them with their hands.

Mr. Campbell, a performer and teacher who also is from Washington, says African music is spiritual. "There's a healing aspect to it."

But the music is not only for blacks. Whites, too, can appreciate the music and recognize the contributions black culture has made in America, Mr. Campbell says. "It's a way to get in touch for blacks and whites."

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