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Celebrating heritage

Event explores history, culture through drumming

By Lorenzo Morotti, associate editor
On February 28, 2014

  • Performer Kiazi Malonga leads the conga drum performance during the annual Black History Month Celebration event in the Knox Center on Feb. 13. Qing Huang / The Advocate

Students, faculty and local residents gathered in the Knox Center to gain a better understanding of African-American heritage through spoken word and powerful drumming of the Yoruba and Congo cultures on Feb. 13.
"We celebrate the continuity of life through the drum," Cal State-Monterey Bay Africana studies professor Umi Vaughan told the 150 people in attendance. "It is an intergenerational and cross cultural connection."
The Talking Drum in the African World Community brought together many different cultures to experience the meaning of drumming through an African-American perspective, Vaughan said.
Master drummer Kiazi Malonga led the drum group and dancers with whistle in mouth as they engulfed the auditorium with rhythmic waves halfway into the ceremony.
The drummers stood behind a pair of two dancers dressed in vibrant colors and ornaments of West African culture. They moved gracefully, in sync with each other and Malonga, as he controlled the rhythm that was enhanced by the quicker beats resonating from behind him, before forming a conga line.
Western belief of a separation between the performers and audience was torn down after the music stopped and the applause died in the auditorium.
"In my culture that does not exist," Malonga said. "It has been good having all of you as an audience - but I'd like to blur that barrier."
He asked audience members sitting in the darkness to come onto the stage and join in dance.
Thirteen people took the stage, each from a different ethnic background and age to form a line of dance that went from one end of the stage to the other.
The drums started up again. Claps and shouts erupted from the audience to the beat of the drums. Among the drummers and dancers was drama professor Linda Whitmoore. She said being up there felt amazing.
"The drums go straight to your soul - it makes you want to move," Whitmoore said.
ASU Treasurer Antone Agnitsch was also on stage. He said, "The music made you want to dance. You really feel the passion of the drums. It gives you a really cool vibe."
Presentations by students who took one of African-American studies professor Carolyn Hodges' classes and local residents' reflections on their ancestry spanned the first half of the celebration. All spoke of a rich African ancestry that they had not known until they enrolled in one of Hodge's or sociology department Chairperson Manu Ampim's history classes.
African-American studies major Tanika Carter thought she could not learn anything she did not already know about slavery, and the resonating negative effect it has had on the African American culture in the United States, she said.
She was unaware that instead she would be studying the ancient civilizations of West Africa until she completed a semester of one of the African-American studies classes offered at Contra Costa College.
Carter later said she craved more knowledge about her peoples' culture and history.
"African history goes beyond slavery. It goes back to the great empires of Mali, Songhai and Ghana," she said.
"How could I have gone this far in life and not know about the great African civilizations?" Gateway student Dominque Spain asked the crowd later.
These civilizations thrived thousands of years ago during different time periods in West African history.
The Yoruba people also hail from West Africa and are the dominant ethnic group in current day Nigeria.
Like many ancient civilizations around the world, African culture is steeped in symbolism. The drum for the Yoruba people is the center of their religious and cultural belief system.
"'Anya' is the godly energy that inhabits the drums," Vaughan said. "It's the spirit of sound that can awaken gods and stir every human emotion."
As he spoke to the audience from behind the podium, their eyes were drawn to the three drums that stood center stage.
All are different sizes and produce unique sounds.
Vaughan introduced each, starting with the smallest. The "Okonklo," he said, is the simplest and most repetitive. The "Itotolay" is the one that follows. It has a deeper and more agile melody. The largest is dubbed "Iya" in Yoruba culture.
"This is the bass," he said.
He then played a CD with all these sacred drums playing in unison and asked people in the audience to raise their hand when they heard a shift in the rhythm. Hands rose from the darkness almost on cue.
"These drums are used to recreate speech," he said. "To call the spirits for healing or advice."
ASU President Ysreal Condori said, "Culture is not valued sometimes. It's very important because we have a very diverse community with many roots outside the U.S. Events like this connect us all."
Vaughn concluded his presentation by saying, "Most importantly, we have to take this positive energy and use it to mend social wounds and keep on in this mad, wonderful world."
The ASU paid the performers $4,000 to help the African-American Staff Association put on the event, Condori said. 

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