On Saturday May 9th I finally made it to the Spirit of West Africa festival at Seattle Center. For the past three years I’ve always had the intention to go, but each year something would derail my plans. However this year I was determined to make it.
Not feeling the idea of driving into the city(I reside in the suburbs) I instead chose to take the Light Rail to downtown Seattle, knowing that once I arrived I could hop a bus and take a short ride to Seattle Center. My plan hit a snag when I reached Westlake Mall, the last stop on the light rail and realized that I didn’t have cash on me to pay my daughters’ fare for the bus! Thinking quickly I came up with an alternate plan: take the monorail to Seattle Center. That plan reached a snag as well when I got to the platform and discovered that they only take cash. I sucked my teeth. WHO DOESN’T TAKE CREDIT AND/OR DEBIT CARDS IN 2015?
I sucked it up, found an ATM and berated myself for not following my gut and stopping at my own bank earlier in the day. Six dollars and fifty cents and ten minutes later we were now at our destination. As the doors of the train opened I tightened my grip on my daughters’ hand. Moving straight beast mode through the massive throng of tourists we made our way inside.
We arrived as the stage was being set up for Obo Addy’s Okropong, the third performance of the day. Obo Addy’s Okropong is a group of Ghanaian dancers and drummers who showcase the diversity of the traditional music and dance found in their nation. When their set began the intensity and volume of the drums made me sit up even straighter. I whipped out my phone, humming along as I recorded. However throughout the performance had to put my phone down.
There was no use in trying to continue recording when I couldn’t remain still. I am not a skilled dancer in any sense of the word but even I cannot resist the call of the drums. They speak to you and make you move. It never fails for me. The drums make my head nod, my shoulders bounce and my hips roll in my seat. I slip my phone back into my purse, fully engaged in the music and looking on in joy.
As I watch the drummers powerfully beat their drums, their rippling biceps making a rhythm in and of themselves, I remember that what I am witnessing and participating in was once forbidden in this nation. The role of the drum among the various enslaved African ethnic groups was recognized by those who bought and sold them. Fearful that the drums could pass messages that only the enslaved could understand and help rebellions succeed, drums were banned in the notorious Slave Codes of the South(for an interesting article about how the ban on drums influenced the evolution of African-American music please click here).
The drums would become part of the list of cherished aspects of identity and culture that African-Americans were cruelly and intentionally stripped of. The labor of Africans was wanted and needed, but the totality of their being was not. Their culture, language, religious beliefs and history were all deemed to be worthless and inferior;much of that heritage would be lost. But even with that knowledge I still grinned as I beheld the dancing, and wished that I could speak to my ancestors. I would tell them that their descendants remain.
I would point to the stage, tap them on the shoulder and tell them that everything that was taken from can now be expressed, upheld and celebrated. It is 2015 and African drums beat openly in the United States. Much of that is due to the arrival of 1.5 million African immigrants over the past thirty years. These immigrants are faced with the questions of identity and assimilation that other ethnic groups who voluntarily immigrated grappled with. They are writing a new chapter in the history of Africans in America, adding another layer of rich complexity to the African Diaspora. Witnessing both the vestiges of precolonial African cultures among my ethnic group and the influx of modern African culture in the United States lets me know that our shared story is not over.