Sistah speak

The all-female African drum-and-dance group Giwayen Mata swerves through identity politics to find its own beauty

The African dance, as danced in America by Americans, is a language not fully understood — not by the audience, nor, for that matter, by the performer. Still, Giwayen Mata communicates with a force and eloquence that manages to get its message across regardless, no matter where you are now or where your ancestors lived 300 years ago.

The dense polyrhythms of hands beating on the djembe, the sangba, the dununba, the kenkeni; the bent-kneed agility of the colorfully garbed dancers — stamping feet and nodding necks, contracting and releasing torsos, extending arms and chins, then leaping athletically into the air, a dozen or so in unison. It's an overwhelming amount of information, and it makes the heart race to keep up.

For 10 years, this has been the dialogue between audiences and Giwayen Mata, arguably Atlanta's premier African drum-and-dance troupe, probably the city's only all-American one, and certainly the city's only all-female one.

This Sunday, Giwayen Mata looks back on its first decade with "Speak Sistah Speak!" In part, the two performances are a celebration of the group's past, with former and occasional members returning to the core 15-member company. It's also the group's most ambitious production yet — complete with professionally choreographed new works, ambitious self-choreographed pieces that break new ground, and the group's first-ever CD release, featuring Giwayen Mata's original drum-and-vocal compositions.

To reach this point, Giwayen Mata has weaved and swayed through a complex landscape of African-American identity, gender and sexual politics. As much as the group's actual movement, this agile dance through traditions and prejudices, "buts" and "you can'ts," is a testament to Giwayen Mata's grace and power.

br>?But women don't drum
In the years before Giwayen Mata's birth, Atlanta's African dance scene was dominated by three groups: Uhuru African Dance Company, which dated back to the 1970s; Barefoot Ballet, a kids-oriented group; and Manya, an offshoot of Barefoot Ballet geared toward adults. For the most part, these groups had their roots in the Afro-centric reawakening that followed the civil rights era — a time in the '60s when, more than ever before, American blacks started investigating the heritage of which they'd long been deprived. They began identifying themselves not simply on national terms, as an oppressed American underclass, but internationally, as a part of the larger, more richly defined African people.

The dancers in these groups were mostly women, but they hired male drummers to accompany them in classes and performances. Often, the musicians were not motivated by a goal of racial upliftment — they just wanted to play, get paid and go home. This made it difficult for those committed to African dance as a cultural expression to arrange and afford live drums — an essential part of the experience.

Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt found the drummers' attitude particularly frustrating. A Nigerian native who moved to Atlanta in 1988 with her American husband, she sought out, and was relieved to find, small pockets of African culture in town. But, she says, being inconsistent and uncommitted "is not what drummers are where I'm coming from. And if we're trying to perpetuate the culture, we should do it right."

Afegbua-Sabbatt had an idea: She would gather a group of women from the African dance companies in town and teach them to play drums, so that they could accompany each other's classes. First, though, she had to determine which drums were acceptable for women to play. Certain drums, she knew, were forbidden for Nigerian women to even see, while others were particularly designed for women's use. She researched the traditions of other African nations and found that the djembe, from the west coast of Africa, was not forbidden to women (though its weight and size had not made it a popular choice). Along the way, she also picked up some drumming techniques, which she brought to the dancers in Atlanta.

Soon a group of women were gathering regularly, in Piedmont Park or West End Park, to practice drumming. Among them were Omelika Kuumba, who worked with the Barefoot Ballet children's group, and her friend Gail Zuri Sami Ra Maati Jordan, who'd recently taken up drumming. As the women developed their skills, the practice sessions began to draw attention in the park.

"People were surprised that women were drumming," Jordan recalls. "In the drum community, people would give us dap [validation] and they would also give us fever [criticism]. The dap was about lifting us up, saying, 'Go ahead sister.' Whereas the fever would be about people suggesting to us that we should not drum because it could affect our reproductive organs, or that women should not touch the drum — that they don't approve of our drumming."

The drummers might simply have fulfilled their original purpose — accompanying dance classes — had they not been approached, 10 years ago, by the women of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam. The Muslim women were organizing their Celebration '93 fashion show and fundraiser, an event for females only. Rather than view the drummers as a progressive, inherently feminist attraction, the event planners saw in them an entertainment solution that did not conflict with strict Islamic codes of modesty. Specifically, no men could be in attendance — not even as entertainment — since the women would be modeling clothes.

Invited to perform at Celebration '93, Jordan and Kuumba put together a group of 10 women, including Afegbua-Sabbatt and other drummers from the park. For a name, Afegbua-Sabbatt suggested Giwayen Mata, a Hausa term meaning "elephant leaders of women." It's a name that was given to Afegbua-Sabbatt's aunt in Nigeria, she says, "because things that would be seen as radical to do she would stand up and say, 'Hey, it's not forbidden. We're going to do it.'"

Giwayen Mata tested the waters with a performance at Spelman College, then headlined at the Masjid. The reception was overwhelmingly positive.

"We were stepping onto the stage as a brand new group, with courage as our main asset," Jordan says. "After, I felt like, 'Wow, we can do anything.'"

With that, the all-female drum-and-dance troupe became a permanent company.

br>?But culture demands authenticity
Though Afegbua-Sabbatt provided the impetus for Giwayen Mata's formation, and then named the group, she didn't stay a member for long. She already had her own group, Manya (and later, Manga). And she soon found Giwayen Mata at odds with her own deeply rooted cultural beliefs.

From the start, there have been homosexual members of Giwayen Mata, and they've never had any particular inclination to hide that fact.

"I got approached by African-borns: 'Why are you in that group? Does that mean you are also a lesbian?'" says native Nigerian Afegbua-Sabbatt. "In America, we have tolerance. But in African culture, [homosexuality] is a taboo — just like there are certain drums we don't play. It was tarnishing my reputation with the community, and I had to just let it go."

While Giwayen Mata has never considered the sexuality of some of its members part of the larger group's agenda, the women have been cautious not to condemn those who've disapproved — lest they find themselves in the tricky position of celebrating African culture while invalidating some of the less convenient beliefs that the culture itself has fostered.

"That was a very hard place for us," says Kuumba, of the resistance they felt from some members of the African dance community. "But we just did our thing, because we felt like it was what we had to do."

Kuumba, now a Spelman dance instructor who serves as Giwayen Mata's director, says the group has since come to terms with the issue. "I'm not able to just chalk sexuality into a cultural norm. I have met so many people from Africa who are not straight and who take part in the culture, from priests to dancers to drummers. [Afegbua-Sabatt] has a right to her understanding — and I love her dearly. She has been such a monumental, pivotal point as a cultural carrier. But I understand that there are all types of people in this world and the creator loves all of us."

Along with the issue of sexuality is a more general division between African-born immigrants, whose practices were ingrained from birth, and African-Americans, who have embraced African culture as a conscious choice, often through second-hand sources. As a result, African immigrants sometimes see African-Americans practicing their culture as if they were simply going through the motions. And African-Americans, in turn, can resent the snobbery of Africans.

For Giwayen Mata, the solution to the question of authenticity is simply to be what they are — if not strictly an African drum and dance group, then one rooted in African traditions but very much informed by the black experience in America. In recent years, that has increasingly meant incorporating jazz dance, modern dance and other styles of the black diaspora.

As the group has evolved, "we're more comfortable with just being who we are," says Tambra Harris, who joined Giwayen Mata in 1997. "We really are the modern, the jazz, the African. We are the music, we are the song, we are everything we claim to be from our own personal expression. We're traditional sometimes, but we have that contemporary edge. Coming from a traditional perspective, there's a lot of pressure to reflect tradition in its purest form. And it's really a blessing to be able to do that. But at the same time, culture is continuous — it lives, and it's growing and breathing just like we are. So we have stepped up and taken our place in perpetuating the culture in a way that makes sense in our personal lives."

In addition to traditional African dances from Mali and the Ivory Coast, Giwayen Mata's 10th anniversary concert, "Speak Sistah Speak!," features two Haitian dances and two others that represent Giwayen Mata's fusion of styles. The first was created for the group by noted New York choreographer Ron Brown, whose eclectic work — spanning from African to hip-hop dance — has been performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, among others. The second, Evolution, is self-choreographed by the company, based around music by Kuumba, Harris and dancer Tracie Greene. Combining various styles, it follows the group's development toward finding its own identity.

The finale will reunite the current company with members who have moved away, and members who have otherwise left the group — including Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt.

br>?But African-Americans don't know where they came from
The black experience in America is different from all other immigrant stories, of course, because it was not immigration by choice. And unlike other groups, who were free to retain as much of their old-world ties as they wanted, Africans were compelled to lose those connections. By the time black Americans became free, notes Kuumba, "[for] most of us, what we knew about Africa was Tarzan — and that wasn't very affirming. So a lot of us didn't want to be associated with Africa, because it wasn't cute — you know, with the African people speaking gibberish and all that."

However, the break from Africa was never as complete as was assumed. Despite tremendous upheaval, the family continuity portrayed in Alex Haley's Roots was not unprecedented.

"My great-grandfather passed on the stories," says Kuumba, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a family of educators. "I knew about my African ancestry all my life. So when Roots came out, I was like, 'Yeah, we know about that. I know I'm an Ashanti.' I know that the person who came over on the ship was from Ashanti [now Ghana, in West Africa]. They came to Florida, and luckily they passed down the story."

Where African-ness was a bold statement for some in the '60s and '70s, for Kuumba it was a way of life. She attended Black School the way Toula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding attends Greek School. Her two teenage kids have also grown up with African names, surrounded by like-minded friends, and fully engaged in African culture. These days, in fact, the story of reclaiming African identity is no longer much of a story at all. Dashikis and head wraps are every bit as American as pinatas, clogs, falafel, karaoke and apple pie.

Surrounded by Giwayen Mata and her dance classes, Kuumba says, "I have this really great buffer zone. If I look outside of that, I see people who are not necessarily immersed in the culture. But they still have a connection — it's not so strange for people to call themselves African-American, to acknowledge that side of themselves. It's not strange to see people who have their hair in locks or just natural, who might not otherwise be involved in cultural activities.

"There's a comfort that exists in us just being ourselves. I think that what we're doing is pleasing to our ancestors."


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