'Africa In the Ozarks':Dancer, Drummer Shares Native Culture With Area

Residents|Afrique Aya To Present 'The Tradition of the Mask'

Posted: July 31, 2009 at midnight

— Kouakou Yao smiles as his hands fly across the drum, palms striking the goathide with unexpected force. He swivels his head toward his right shoulder, following an internal rhythm separate from the pulsing beat.

He raps out a sequence of sound, then pauses to let students answer on their own djembes and the bass djun djun. They end together with a flourish. Music thunders through the room even after they have stopped.

Later, Yao leaves the drum circle to lead dancers across the floor. He reaches skyward with outstretched arms, lifting knees high from the earth. His exaggerated movements and gleaming smile signal delight. Drumming and dance are his passion, a joy he shares with students in Fayetteville and Eureka Springs.

"It's a good feeling. When I'm dancing, I'm happy," he said. "I turn into somebody different. No matter what's gone on all day, when it comes to dancing and drumming, it's like nothing ever happened."

Yao, known as Angelo to his family and friends, has taught African drumming and dance in Northwest Arkansas since 2003. He's director and choreographer of Afrique Aya Dance Co., based in Eureka Springs. The company will sponsor the third annual Africa In the Ozarks festival in Eureka Springs this week.

The theme is "The Tradition of the Mask."

The four-day festival will offer live performances, a mask-making workshop, workshops in drum and dance, a free children's dance class, an African dinner and an open air African market with clothing, jewelry, statues and drums. Afro-pop band Ozakwaaba will perform after Afrique Aya on Friday and Saturday nights.

The goal is to introduce area residents of all ages to the rich and varied culture of West Africa.

"I want people to learn the culture and see the beauty of it," Yao said. He'll be joined by other master level teachers and performers from Guinea and the Ivory Coast. Fayetteville art teacher and puppeteer Jo Ann Kaminsky will lead the mask-making workshop on Thursday morning.

This year's evening performance piece, "The Tradition of the Mask," is more of a narrative than in years past. It tells the story of a boy born to dance the Zaouli mask. The audience will learn about the symbolism of African masks, what they represent at different times of life and mask-based rituals in African culture.

From Africa To Eureka Springs

Yao started dancing as a child in his native Cote D'Ivoire, also known as Ivory Coast. The West African nation was colonized by the French in the 1800s. It gained independence in 1960. Yao is a member of the Baoule people, one of 60 distinct tribes that make up the population. His native languages are French, Baoule and Bamba.

Drumming and dance have been a part of his life from an early age, Yao said. The Baoule use ritual dance to mark major passages such as birth, puberty and marriage. It's a part of their work and a part of their play. People gather to the sound of the drum.

After his parents died, Yao decided to make dance his career. He and a couple of friends left their native town of Bouake for the nation's largest city of Abidjan. Yao was 14.

Abidjan is known as the arts capital of Ivory Coast, Yao said. It is home to L'Ensemble Koteba, the national dance company.

The boys danced with several other companies while they waited for a chance to audition with Koteba. The opportunity finally came. More than 90 dancers applied for six slots. Yao and both his childhood friends were chosen. The year was 1989. Yao was 16.

He danced with Koteba for nearly 10 years, visiting nations throughout Africa and as far away as France, the Netherlands and the United States. His first U.S. performance was at a black arts festival in Atlanta, Ga. The company stayed for a month.

"We loved it -- the opportunity to travel around the world making a living dancing and doing the things we love," Yao said.

In 1997, modern dance choreographer and director Ralph Lemon asked Yao and one of his friends to come to Connecticut as artists in residence at the Yale Repertory Theatre. They worked with graduate students on a dance-theater piece called Geography.

Yao returned to Ivory Coast after the six-month residency ended. In 1999, he moved back to the United States, starting his own dance company in Burlington, Vt.

Afrique Aya has a double meaning, Yao explained. Aya, also Friday, was his mother's name. The word also means "getting together," the atmosphere he hopes to foster through drumming and dance.

Yao met his wife, Jenny Clay, in Burlington. The Eureka Springs resident was a student at nearby Goddard College. She majored in dance, with an emphasis on West African dance and culture. By the time she met Yao, she'd visited Africa three times.

The two married in 2003. They moved to Eureka Springs to raise their son, Sydney Kouassi, now 4. Two more children joined the family in October. Aya, 6, and Moussa, 4, were adopted from Ethiopia.

Clay works as a case manager for Ozark Guidance in Berryville. Yao is a traffic controller for the Eureka Springs Police Department. The couple might retire to Africa someday, but for the foreseeable future, Northwest Arkansas is home.

That's fine with Yao, who enjoys the laid back pace of life in Eureka Springs. Many of his African friends who settled in U.S. cities are no longer dancing, squeezed by the demands of big city life.

"The speed is not so fast (here)," he said, perched on his djembe for the interview. "I have the time to keep growing my culture."

Dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt and sandals, he seemed both relaxed and alert. He speaks English well, although his accent is heavy.

The 35-year-old hopes he's still dancing when he's 90, he said.

"It's a good feeling. There are so many conversations in the music. It makes it really fun.

"When I'm dancing, I'm happy."

Feeling the Joy

Yao has led students on two trips to West Africa in recent years. The month-long visits allowed for an immersion in African culture. Students studied drumming and dance with a variety of native teachers in Mali and Senegal. Yao plans to return next year, taking students to Ivory Coast if the political climate allows.

The first trip in 2005 was "a dream come true" for company member Anita Schnee, who's been drumming with Yao since 2003.

"I've always wanted to go to Africa," she said. "To be able to go with Angelo -- to see the country where (African music) was born, was an unforgettable experience."

Drumming with the company is a highlight of her life, Schnee said. She practices with Yao twice a week, once in Fayetteville and once in Eureka Springs.

"It's the source of joy for me. It's where I have fun, in a group, with people without speaking in language, but communicating through music and drumming and rhythm and dance. It's a really solid feeling, to be in the middle of that."

The dance and drumming work together, she said, forming two parts of a seamless whole. There's a sense of conversation present in both. The drums talk back and forth to each other. Dancers hear the rhythms and respond.

"It's a conversation. It's not just playing," Yao said. As participants drop deeper and deeper into the music, they hear those conversations more. Both drummers and dancers report a startling phenomenon -- hearing voices in the music that aren't there.

Creating the multi-layered sound is a spiritual experience, Yao said. A focus of attention is needed that takes participants to another plane.

"If you don't hear the conversation, you can't play. To be in that conversation, you have to have a really clear mind, be deep inside it. It's a prayer."

Dancers hear it, too.

"The beat just gets into your soul, under your skin," said Julie Ballance, a company member since 2003. "It just speaks to you."

"It's wonderful to dance to the drums," agreed Kaminsky. "It's just enlivening. You go there and think you're tired and then you start dancing. Halfway through you're grinning from ear to ear ... I just can't get enough. I love it."

Kaminsky described the dance form as vigorous, with more spinal manipulation and jumping than American forms of dance. It's very grounded at the same time, she said. Dancers land with their entire foot on the floor.

The dances are based on activities in African culture such as fishing, hunting and courting. In one dance, performers shake imaginary chaff from their hands, for example. In another, they throw a net into the sea.

Yao teaches the movements in slow motion, then has students repeat them in place before moving across the floor. He's an excellent teacher, students agreed, with a gift for making the complex accessible.

"He can break things down to very simple steps, both in dance and in drumming," Kaminsky said. "Even though he is a master, he can relate to people who are just beginning."

"(He makes it) really, really fun," Schnee agreed. "We start out not knowing anything and catch on pretty quickly."

Yao has a deep supply of patience, added company drummer Keith Richards.

"Africans just understand the rhythm, understand the drumming. Americans don't," he said. "I've seen other teachers get impatient. Angelo never feels that way -- or he never shows it if he does.

"He's so patient, so calm. He continually brings the joy, every night, no matter how we've played or danced."

The company has played in a number of regional venues in the past few years. A highlight was opening for Willie Nelson in Eureka Springs in 2005.

Other performances include playing for the Fayetteville First Night celebration, the Rogers International Festival, the International Festival at the Jones Center For Families in Springdale, Juneteenth in Fort Smith and the annual AIDS benefit put on by the Black Student Association at the University of Arkansas.

The company also has served a two-week residency in El Dorado schools and given a shorter educational program at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Rogers. On the roster of the Arkansas Arts Council, Afrique Aya is available to play for schools and other groups.

Go and Do

Africa In the Ozarks

Dates: July 5-8

Venue: The Eureka Springs City Auditorium

Theme: The Tradition of the Mask

Events: Mask-making workshop, 10 a.m. Thursday, $12. Drum and dance workshops, all four days, $22 each. African dinner, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, $17. "The Tradition of The Mask," 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $22, children, $10. Ozakwaaba Band, 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $17. All-inclusive festival pass, $195.

Information: www.afriqueaya.org, www.theaud.org, 363-9373.

Tickets: www.theaud.org, 253-7788, 1-888-855-7823 or in person at The Auditorium box office.

Source: Staff Report