A friend recently explained why she hosts an annual celebration on International Women’s Day. If women can join together, she believes, and recognize their strength and uniqueness, they can achieve anything. This is a high ideal. But last Sunday, Giwayen Mata, the “all sistah” African dancing and drumming group, demonstrated that it’s within reach.
The Fulton County Southwest Arts Center theater was packed to capacity when the Atlanta-based troupe, in its 21st year, presented This Mother’s Daughter, the troupe’s major annual performance and its first formal tribute to mothers in about five years. (Recent concerts have honored fathers.) The production highlighted relationships between mothers and daughters from an African American perspective, vivifying African culture and showing its worldwide relevance.
Since Giwayen Mata’s founding in 1993, the troupe has worked hard to break down some African traditionalists’ misconceptions that women shouldn’t play certain drums. The troupe’s commitment to excellence and authenticity has earned recognition from Chuck Davis, founder of DanceAfrica USA. As a result, Giwayen Mata has performed at nine DanceAfrica festivals across the United States and at home; last June, the company hosted the first full DanceAfrica Atlanta festival on its 20th anniversary.
New this year, artistic director Omelika Kuumba linked its 19 scenes with a narrative about a young woman’s journey from infancy to adulthood. The girl rejects — and later finds power — in her cultural roots, aided by a mother and a supportive community.
Both mother and daughter learn valuable lessons as they move through a series of songs, dances, rituals and dramatic vignettes — carefully researched, vividly costumed and performed with the company’s signature sense of joy, generosity and dignity.
The cast comprised women at many stages of life. These included the troupe of about 20 women, several of their daughters, students from a youth outreach program and an ensemble of musicians. Together, they engaged the audience from the moment company founders invoked the ancestors to the finale, when the audience joined in celebration.
Different pairs of real-life mothers and daughters rotated through the two lead roles of the daughter Yejide and the mother Anaya — an artistic decision that might have been confusing, except for their solid bright yellow costumes. These set them apart from the ensemble, so the audience could follow the characters from one scene to the next. There was extra poignancy for insiders who knew the performers’ off-stage relationships; the pairs moved in and out of roles with ease, suggesting they could be any, or every, mother and daughter.
Company member and vocalist Andaiye Scott, as Griot, helped narrate the story and linked scenes with an array of inspired blues, jazz and popular songs. Scott gave a personal and nuanced interpretation of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” while dancers captured the verses’ spirit and motion.
Among highlights was “Yamama,” a masked dance from the Susu people of Guinea, traditionally performed each year to honor a female spirit. The curtain opened to a large ensemble, with drummers stationed along the stage’s rear and sides. Some carried goblet-shaped djembe drums strapped over their shoulders; others played cylindrical kenkeni, sangban and doundounba. Kuumba, with long locks gently swinging down her back, seemed at the center, playing djembe with authority and passion.
At center stage, four djembe drummers rocked in synchrony with the rhythms. As they advanced forward in one line, the web of rhythm felt like an ocean tide rolling in and overtaking the audience. Layers of sound seemed to spill over the edge of the stage with strong undercurrents and joyful crests.
Dressed in white, some danced as they played, arms and hips sweeping from side to side. Red and orange tassels accentuated the proud sway of their hips. Dancer Joi Hudson emerged near Kuumba. With silky fluidity and assertive femininity, Hudson’s limbs, head, torso, hands and feet moved like individual voices that were part of a larger synchrony. The dance took on a new dimension, enlivening the space around her.
This effect occurred many times as the story progressed through traditional and contemporary music and dance, with each crescendo and decrescendo thoughtfully conceived.
Costumes showed extraordinary care. Dancers appeared with different outfits in almost each major sections — some wore traditional, bold-colored African dresses and head wraps; others contemporary; still others, hybrids, such as skirts fashioned of both African print and tulle.
Near the end, Sarahn Henderson, as Anaya, celebrated her daughter’s return with a Moribayassa, an ancient rhythm and dance of the Malinke people. As Henderson played a large shekere (calabash), undulating tones emanated from a three-bass-set of dunun drums. The layered polyrhythm drew the audience in; it tapped the muscles, causing the heart to beat in rhythm with its pulses. For a brief time, there was a feeling of inhabiting a more vivid world, with a heightened sense of being alive.
In the midst of it all, four-year-old Nia Kelly strode forward with a small djembe drum slung over her shoulders. She planted her feet daringly close to the edge of the stage. Eyes ablaze, she stared straight out at the audience and beat a crisp, persistent rhythm. All eyes seemed to land on this tiny figure who seemed to symbolize indomitable strength and continuity of culture.
The audience began clapping and the theater seemed to swell with rhythm. Feet stamped. Shoulders pulsed, arms circled and hands beckoned. Like a reverse tide, people flowed up the aisles and onto the stage, joining the celebration.
Giwayen Mata was founded 21 years ago, partly because a group of women wanted to dance and needed drummers to play for them. It was a simple, practical reason, but it points to my friend’s lofty ideals. Can women change the world if they join together and support one another? The Giwayen Mata, or “Elephant Leaders of Women,” are doing just that.