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Kùlú Mèlé’s ‘Sacred Journeys’ at the Painted BrideBY: Janet Anderson 11.29.2011
Kùlú Mèlé is no mere group of well-meaning ethnics performing to amuse themselves and their audience; it invites us into the infectious beauty, mystery and glamour of the true African aesthetic— which is a long way from tap dancing and shuffling.
Kùlú Mèlé: “Sacred Journeys.” November 26-27, 2011 at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. (215) 844-3409 or kulumele.org.
African roots: The real dealJANET ANDERSON
Kùlú Mèlé is a local performing treasure that far too many Philadelphians know very little about. The troupe is comprised of African-Americans who’ve retrieved their own heritage in music, dance and praise. Kùlú Mèlé translates into “Voice of our Ancestors” and as its name implies, the troupe celebrates its antecedents by singing and dancing joyfully in bright costumes and bare feet.
The dancers’ enthusiasm is contagious. As drummers provided the musical background, using a variety of drums large and small as well as voices that wailed and soared, the entire Painted Bride audience leaned forward to take it all in. Children left their seats to jump up and down with the performers. This was truly a celebration of a culture as well as something of a very festive town meeting.
Kùlú Mèlé derives its impetus from Yoruba (West African) traditions, stories and dances. In the opening sequence, Elegba, the Yoruba messenger of the gods, holds a key— actually a forked stick— that leads to good or bad behavior.
Unlike Alvin Ailey
Keep in mind, this no group of well-meaning ethnics performing to amuse themselves and their audience; this is a troupe whose dedication to maintaining African based traditions that has been attracted the support of high-powered funders from the William Penn Foundation to the National Endowment for the Arts. Unlike, say, the Alvin Ailey troupe, Kùlú Mèlé isn’t just showcasing African-Americans, it’s inviting audiences into the beauty, mystery and glamour of the true African aesthetic— which is a long way from tap dancing and shuffling.
Columbia, the troupe’s second number, was an Afro-Cuban dance much like the rumba. But in this case, the men were the ones wiggling their hips and moving their heads and upper bodies in opposing directions. Columbia quickly segued into La Mora, a Cuban salute to Congolese ancestors. Actually the audience didn’t even need to know the derivation of these dances, because the actual performance was breathtaking, no one moved or spoke in the audience.
Initiation into womanhood
Then came a drum interlude with drummers using everything from congo drums, to split drums and more. Five drummers stood at the rear of the stage, two of them white, all of them terrific.
The finale, Bao, celebrated a young girl’s initiation into adulthood. A girl sat on the stage while the head woman flicked water onto her, cleansing her (as well as some nearby pleasantly surprised audience members). These ladies danced— I mean danced!— their bare feet slapping the floor, shoulders forward and shoulders rolling back.
When it ended, the entire audience rose to its feet in applause. For all I know, they may still be down there applauding.
It was that kind of performance– thrilling, electric and beautiful. Kùlú Mèlé belongs at Annenberg or the Merriam with the rest of Philadelphia’s prestigious dance troupes.
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