Up beat: West Africa tied to Portland through dance celebration

 

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Henry David Thoreau

 

Portland was in for a treat when Youssouf Koumbassa, world-renowned master dancer and cultural ambassador from Guinea, West Africa, taught a dance class, mingled with the community during a potluck supper, and performed at Mini Guinea Fest.

"He taught an amazing dance workshop and gifted us all with a surprise performance during the show," said Marita Kennedy-Castro, who has studied under him for 16 years, both in the U.S. and in Guinea.

On May 16, more than 150 supporters of the form converged at the Woodford's Club to take the specialty dance class and see the show, which featured six West African artists, including Namory Keita, who recently relocated to Portland. Keita a djembefola, (master drummer) from Guinea, was joined by fellow djembefolas, Sayon Camara, Abdoulaye Toure, Theo Martey, and master balafonist, Abou Sylla for the show.

They were given VIP seating to watch the opening acts, including 25 dancers and drummers from ME and NH. Attendees to the festival included as many as 75 students from drum and dance classes around Maine. The event was a joint production between Kennedy-Castro, Keita and Janice Erickson, which began with "what do you want to do for a birthday bash?" for Erickson.

"Janice moved to Maine more than 25 years ago and was an early pioneer for African dance and drumming in this area," Kennedy-Castro said. Over 10 years ago Erickson and Kennedy-Castro began collaborating to spread the love for West African music and dance around Portland and beyond.

Kennedy-Castro created Embody the Rhythm — Portland's West African Inspired Dance and Drum hub, offering classes and performances. Local drummers joined in, providing live music for the classes, on the djembe, kenkeni, sangban, and djundjun drums, traditional to Guinea.

"My intention was to build a community that understands and appreciates West African dance so there would be enough support to bring some of my teachers (the masters of this form) to Portland," Kennedy-Castro said. Her dream has been realized many times over, hosting classes with Sidiki Sylla, Ismael Kouyate and Yossouf Koumbassa numerous times, with outstanding attendance.

The festival was a birthday bash and 10-year anniversary with a big bonus: the celebration of Namory Keita's move to town.

"Because this community has continued to grow, Namory is now here to teach, drum for classes and perform," she said of Keita, who came to Portland for first time last year and has performed all over the world.

"His uncle, Famadou Konate, is one of the best-known West African master drummers world-wide."

"I chose Portland because it is active," Keita said. "I like the community here. I have lot of energy to share my art and my culture. I have good communication and collaboration with the people here in Portland. I’m happy to work with Marita and Janice. They helped me to start classes here."

Kennedy-Castro concurred. "Over the years, this community has been built one dancer and one drummer at a time," she said. "And we're ever expanding. There is always room for more who are interested to embodying the beautiful rhythms of Guinea, West Africa."

 

Get the Beat | West African dance class Open to All-Levels | Thursdays at Maine Ballroom Dance, Portland | 7:15pm. | Beginner dance | Tuesdays at the Woodford's Club, Portland | 5:45pm. followed by Beginner drum with Namory Keita | 7:15pm. | For more info and to find out more about classes, visit www.embodytherhythm.com

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