Olivia Stepp said she was “bitten” by the undulating drum beats and authentic dances of a rich Guinean culture built on generations of storytelling.
Stepp’s classical ballet training did not prepare her for the loud and colorful new world at her first West African ensemble rehearsal at Anderson University.
“You feel comfortable with your body and connect to a culture that I never really would have heard of before.” said Stepp. “I got bitten and just couldn’t leave. So I’ve been here ever since.”
Stepp isn’t the only student to get hooked since David Perry formed the band in 2007.
After a class in West African drumming pushed him to the engaging beat, Perry “gets his teeth into” since leading countless performances and shows involving students from various disciplines, he said.
“This type of music creates community.”
Honoring ancestry: “Community is what keeps us going”
Alisa Caldwell didn’t choose West African dance, she chose it.
“I believe my ancestors passed this gift on to me, not to keep it, but to teach it,” said Caldwell, a guest artist on the set. “It’s such a joy to be able to teach African dance, not just to students who look like me, but to anyone who is ready to embrace it.”
Caldwell’s career as a dancer began after competing in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Sharing a rich culture, her ancestors’ marriage of drumming and dancing is a gift, she says.
“Most of my students don’t look like me, but we are all hungry to feed our minds, bodies and spirits. That’s what African dancing and drumming does.”
Anderson is a predominantly white school, 81% according to the latest figures posted on the university’s website.
Caldwell said she’s grateful Anderson University has a group like this focused on inclusivity.
Having an ensemble saturated with rich Guinean culture at Anderson is “an anomaly”, but that’s the whole point, she said. It is a community where everyone is accepted.
“With this age group, it’s so important to always remind them that community is what keeps us going,” she said of the high school and college students she teaches. “We are not alone in this matter.”
Alongside Caldwell is guest artist Bolokoda Conde, a world renowned drummer known for his ability to exude joy through his instrument.
Condé often says that drumming “makes people very, very happy,” Caldwell said.
Through the multiple languages he speaks and the countless villages and countries he travels to, the drums are a universal language.
The group teaches young adults about unity
A chorus of drumsticks and hands summons deep, hollow beats from great drums. These impulses turn into a ready sea of swaying hands and feet.
The conversation that takes place during Friday rehearsals is what separates this group from other forms of music. Each person is there to share a culture, a story, with someone else, said sophomore Atyona Lambright.
“The beauty of it all is that not everyone is alike and so we really get to portray that when we all dance a little bit different from each other,” Lambright said.
The band is looking for more places to perform, whether it’s at a basketball game or college. They’ve brought their beats to all sorts of places, from elementary schools to the annual MLK Mayor’s Breakfast.
“I wish bands like this were more common, especially on college campuses,” said Stepp, now the band’s dance captain.
Guinea’s rich rhythms are just a cultural experience, but there are countries all over the world that are undiscovered until someone takes the time to acknowledge they are there, he said. she declared.
Thanks to the new community that grew out of this group as well as the weekly performances and rehearsals, Stepp saw it making a difference.
“Now it has completely changed my life.”
Twin sisters Mabry and Kenna Boyle are nearing the end of their final year in music education. Mabry is a dancer while Kenna is a drummer. The break from rigid theory and classical lectures is a welcome burst of fun, they said.
“It really opens your mind to so many different things in the world, different forms of music and different ways of enjoying it,” said Kenna Boyle. “It brings so much hope to the people who are part of the whole thing.”
“Dr. Perry calls it being bitten,” Mabry Boyle said. “So yeah, we’ve all been bitten.”
Sarah Sheridan is a community reporter in Anderson. She would appreciate your help in telling important stories; contact her at [email protected] or on twitter @saralinasher.