UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Since its formation in 1994, the professional dance troupe Step Afrika! used the percussive, polyrhythmic step-by-step genre to promote awareness and discussion of African American history and the evolution of the art form.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Step Afrika! will tour his new program, “Drumfolk”, to more than 10 cities across the country. The Penn State Center for the Performing Arts will host the world premiere on January 31 at the Eisenhower Auditorium. Free community engagement events are also scheduled during the company’s week-long residency at State College. Visit the Performing Arts Center for details.
The concept of “Drumfolk” was inspired by an incident of enslaved Africans activism in a young America and the ensuing slavery legislation. When a group of 20 Angolan slaves rose up against their oppressors – in what history calls the Stono Rebellion of 1739 – the slavers responded with the Negro Law of 1740. Black slaves now saw restrictions on their social interactions, their upbringing, their food culture and even playing their drums.
C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! founder and executive director, said the company made the decision to host the event at Penn State because of the university’s commitment to diversity. “Additionally, I understand that there is a strong tradition of walking on the Penn State campus, so we look forward to connecting with this community,” he said.
In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Williams discussed the history of the African Drumfolks, the significance of their instrument, and how his company from Washington, DC, presented “Drumfolk”.
Question: Can you explain the importance of drums in African culture and among African slaves in America, leading to their use being banned?
Responnse: Many say that the drum is the oldest instrument in the world, and in my travels and work across the world, nowhere does the drum play such a dominant cultural and artistic role as on the African continent.
When Africans first arrived in the Americas, they brought their culture, language, customs and drums with them. Sadly, we don’t have much structured exposure on how African traditions first landed here and how they morphed with what would soon become the United States of America.
“Drumfolk” is the way Step Afrika! captures part of this story and explores the transformation of an African people into a new developing African American culture. Our research into the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and the Negro Act of 1740 provides some clues to the start of this process.
Question: Does each of the percussive movements have a specific meaning (similar to, say, some movements in classical Indian dance)? Were the percussion movements and actions a form of language / code or rather a cathartic response / release?
A: To answer fully, we would need to decide which “percussion movements” we are discussing. A key question that inspired the production of “Drumfolk” by Step Afrika! is “When did African Americans start using the body as a drum and why?” A close reading of the Negro Act of 1740 gives us several clues as to why percussive dance traditions like ringshout, tap, juba tapping, and step exist in the first place. Once the drum was literally taken away from Africans in the “New World”, they began to look for other ways to reclaim and embody the drum. Therefore, Drumfolk.
Question: Were post-Prohibition percussion performances considered an angry or aggressive art form? Was the art form seen (from the slave owner’s point of view) as rebellious in itself? Did the slave owners understand this art form or did they try to shut it down?
A: We need Penn State academics to answer that question! But, according to the research of Step Afrika !, when the Negro Act was passed in the then British colony of South Carolina, the legislation became somewhat of a model for how “the institution particular form of slavery ”would be practiced in the American colonies. Once the drum became an illegal weapon, Africans were forced to adapt and often “hid” their true, often rebellious intent. Such hidden messages are also found in another unique American musical tradition, African-American spirituality.
Question: I watched the Smithsonian Institution’s “Long Conversation” interview between you and renowned researcher Jean Bennett, in which you share optimism for the future (in terms of inclusiveness) despite our country’s problems today. . Do you still maintain that optimism, or how have current events influenced or cemented your perspective?
A: Without question! No current event or isolated political turmoil can ever dampen my optimism for a bright, better, and deeply inclusive future. I have traveled and connected intensely with so many cultures that I know we share a lot more in common than not. And the theater is my favorite place to bring together different cultures and perspectives for a great shared experience.
Question: What has changed since the company was founded 25 years ago, and where do you see the troop going? What would you like to see for the dancers in the future?
A: Who knows? When I started Step Afrika! I had no idea we were ever going to play in the White House for President Obama, or have an interactive exhibit in the largest museum dedicated to African American history in the world. I also did not know that Step Afrika! is said to be one of the largest African-American dance companies in the world today and a cultural ambassador for the United States. I can only hope that our work continues to inspire and connect with audiences across the world. It would be the best gift for me and the artists of Step Afrika.