African Culture & History Through Traditional Dance & Music
There’s always a hum of anticipation in the air when Charles Ahovissi arrives outside one of the Girls Inc. centers in Omaha and begins unloading dozens of beautifully made, exotically shaped African drums in preparation for an after-school program in the gym. “You can tell something special is about to happen,” says Executive Director Roberta Wilhelm. “No matter what happened that day in school or at home, the girls are about to get lost in the beats and rhythms of Africa.”
A professional dancer, drummer, choreographer, and educator from Benin, West Africa, Ahovissi founded the African Culture Connection (ACC) in 2006 to bring the traditional culture and arts of Africa to groups of underserved, largely African-American young people in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Although the group’s African instruments and colorfully clad dancers might seem somewhat incongruous in the cities and towns of America’s heartland, that only underscores the importance of ACC’s mission, according to Ahovissi, who says many young people “are filled with misconceptions and stereotypes” about Africa. “The only things they know about Africa are jungles and animals,” he notes. “They don’t appreciate the value of African culture and African people.” Ahovissi and a small staff of teaching artists are trying to remedy that with ACC’s African Culture & History Through Traditional Dance & Music program.
During classes and workshops at schools and community-based organizations around the area, ACC’s teaching artists use experiential drumming and dancing, storytelling, jewelry making, and textile-printing projects to introduce young people to the traditional arts and culture of West Africa. The hypnotic rhythms of the drums and energetic movements of the dances are engaging in their own right, but the instructors deepen students’ understanding of each art form by discussing the countries, tribes, traditions, and rituals associated with it. Adopting the role of wise elders, the teaching artists also convey through word and deed such traditional African cultural values as self-discipline and respect for elders.
By fostering an appreciation of Africa’s “diverse and beautiful cultures,” ACC helps enhance young African Americans’ pride in their heritage and interest in claiming their African roots, Ahovissi says. At the same time, the program is designed to foster an appreciation of diversity in all participants and to help everyone “discover the ways in which all people are united,” he adds.
Without African Culture Connection, this heritage would, at best, be something they [young people] only connected to through books and lectures. Instead, they have the opportunity to touch, feel, hear, and create the art and the spirit of a distant homeland.Roberta Wilhelm Executive Director, Girls Inc. of Omaha