African culture, heritage on stage

Dancers from Benin to be highlight of Kunta Kinte festival

August 12, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

They shake and shimmy and shake some more -- showing off their moves, calling on their past and giving the audience a piece of the place they call home.

"We want to show to American people our culture," said Luc Aho, a master drummer with Les Supers Anges, a group of dancers from the West African country of Benin that will perform this weekend at the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival at St. John's College in Annapolis.

The group has traveled the world showing the varied styles of dance found in the regions of Benin and carrying a message from Africa that is as strong as the heartbeats of the dancers on stage.

"I want to explain," Aho said, "our culture won't dissipate."

The culture now spread worldwide in the African diaspora -- from the Ivory Coast to the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America -- will be celebrated at the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.

In a dozen years, the festival has grown big enough to draw more than 13,000 people to the scenic waterfront college campus for gospel, jazz, and Caribbean sounds, modern and African dance, and two African fashion shows.

Afro-centric dishes of fried fish, chicken and plantains, curried meats and beans and rice also help draw crowds.

Organizers expect 14,000 to 17,000 to attend the festival this year. Nearly 90 vendors will sell African sculpture, African-American art, and handmade jewelry, crafts and clothing.

"It's another opportunity to show what talents and skills African-Americans have," said Jean Jackson, chairwoman of the event. "We are a magnet for fostering education about blackness. There are people who say, `Kunta Kinte, can I go to that?' I say, of course, it's open for everybody. It's about education."

Kunta Kinte was an African kidnapped from Gambia in the 1760s, brought to Annapolis and sold into slavery.

The story of his origins, his family lineage and his descendants' determination to hold on to their heritage was recorded in "Roots," the award-winning novel written by Alex Haley, Kunta Kinte's grandson five times removed.

The book was later made into a highly regarded television series.

Kunta Kinte became a symbol of the perseverance of the African culture, which the festival named for him celebrates. It also tries to change visitors' misperceptions about Africa.

"People was asking me question, `Are you living in jungle in Africa?' " said Eugenia Chasme, of Benin, who helped bring Les Supers Anges (The Super Angels) to the United States to perform.

"They didn't have any knowledge of Africa," she said "I never saw a jungle in my life. I would be glad to see one."

While the festival has grown over the years, Jackson said she still would like to see more people who are not of African descent participate.

"In Baltimore, you have the ethnic festivals, and it's a cross section of people. They go to enjoy the food and culture and the entertainment," she said.

"We are the biggest activity in town that attracts so many people of color. We want people to say, `Here is an opportunity to come and be exposed to the activities and ambience and the foods,' just like they do for the Greek festival."

The Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at St. Johns College. Parking is free at a lot adjacent to the school. General admission is $5; seniors and children pay $3. Tickets can be purchased at the gate.

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