To mark Black History Month, TRNN’s Eddie Conway speaks with Kibibi Ajanku about founding the Sankofa Dance Theater to teach youth African dance and rhythm
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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. And continuing our series of black history month programs, I have with me today a very special guest and a friend of mine from decades. So please join me in welcoming Kibibi Ajanku. And she’s the founder, director, and the curator of the Sankofa Dance Theater. Kibibi, welcome. KIBIBI AJANKU, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR, SANKOFA DANCE THEATER: I’m pleased to be here. CONWAY: Okay. Well, we always try to figure out, when we do these programs, what’s your background, what’s your interest in the dance theater stuff. So could you share a little bit about your background first? AJANKU: My background. Kibibi. I’m born and raised in Baltimore City. I’ve the dancing all of my life. I started dancing when I was three years old. I went through all of the American kind if traditional dance programs. I started with ballet. I moved to modern dance and jazz and tap. And I found African dance–or maybe African dance found me. When I was in high school, when I was 15 years old and it became something that I was so interested in, that I was so passionate about, that I never turned back. So that’s how I started African dance Sankofa dance theater is an African dance company. And that’s–. CONWAY: Well, tell us a little bit about the beginning, just the founding of Sankofa in the beginning years, if you will. AJANKU: Yeah, sure. Sankofa dance theater. So I met, I kind of moved into African dance by bringing more ethnic work and more kind of Afrocentric work and through the rhythm and through the movements into modern dance. In 1989–just we’ll flash forward–in 1989–. CONWAY: No, flash back first and tell me, when did you start Sankofa itself? AJANKU: In 1989. CONWAY: Oh, okay. Alright. Go ahead. AJANKU: Yes, Sankofa Dance Theater, founded in 1989. Then the landscape of Baltimore had very little to offer young people. The rec centers were closing and there weren’t a lot of out-of-school activities for young people. I wanted to offer things that I believed in for my children. So I began to build a program. Started in 1989 just saying that I will do one class for one year no matter what. There were no drummers in Baltimore city. There was no African dance program at all in Baltimore City. So I committed to do one year, one year, one class for one year. Six months later, we had three classes, we had a drum class, a children’s class, an adult class. And then, before he the year was out, we had a youth company as well and had to move out of our original location into our first dance studio. So it was a good thing. CONWAY: Okay. So tell me some of the things that Sankofa has done over that–that’s what? Twenty-five years or so? AJANKU: Yeah. CONWAY: Well, tell me some of the things, if you can, highlight some of the performances or projects and stuff. AJANKU: What I like to think about when I look back at Sankofa Dance Theater over 25 years: so we finished 25 years and we’re going into our 26th year now. And I like to think about what we do in different categories. So, for the lifetime of the company, we have offered community classes. That way there’s always a place for young people and adults who are interested in learning African dance and rhythm, so that young people and adults who are interested in learning African dance and rhythm can take classes and can train and can get new and fresh information. So, in order to do that, I have to continually fill my cup. In order to do that, I have to continually study. My favorite place to study is Africa because what I want to offer is authentic traditions borne out of the African Diaspora. And the only way to do that is to go and get it. So the next component of what we do, the Sankofa Dance Theater, is offered study options. So I have, across the course of our time, taken groups to Africa, seven tours to Africa, with groups as large as 38. CONWAY: Oh yeah? Where? AJANKU: My favorite places in Senegal, so in the Senegambian region. When I’m in Senegal, I study at a place called Blais Senghor Cultural Arts Center and have done a lot of work with a ballet called Ballet /dʒoʊ/. CONWAY: Okay. AJANKU: And a lot of work with /dʒəˈbɛl.geɪ/, who was formerly the minister of culture and the director, the artistic director for the Senegalese ballet. So I think–. CONWAY: Is that where Gorée Island is? Is that the gate of no return? AJANKU: That’s right. CONWAY: Have you been there? AJANKU: Been there every time. I think going to Gorée Island is like going to Mecca or like going–you have to do that when you go to Senegal. CONWAY: Explain what that is for our audience, becausre people might not know. AJANKU: Gorée Island is–it’s called the Door of No Return. It is one of the most known about slave dungeons in West Africa. It is so–it was the last stopping place. So, for every group of slaves that were stolen from the continent or were taken from the continent, each and every group had to stop at Gorée Island, because that was the most Western point in the entire continent of Africa, and it was the last time to load up, it was the last time to take on provisions. So every single slave that left the continent of Africa went through that door of no return. So it is someplace that I go to over and over again. Each time I go, I go there. CONWAY: Does that help you with your dance still? AJANKU: It touches your spirit. CONWAY: Okay. AJANKU: It is a strong connection that you can only feel, that you really almost can’t–you can’t put into words the depth of the feeling. I’ve taken groups there often where the curator of the location, because the Gorée Island, the slave dungeon has been restored–and so I’ve taken groups there. And the curator–we have a relationship over time. And he will close the door so that only my group is there. And we will begin with prayer and we will talk about what this experience, what visiting Gorée, visiting that slave dungeon, what it makes you feel like, the work that comes out of artists when they leave there is magnificent, because you get to feel yourself on this side of the middle passage and connect to what we were as African people before, and connect to that time where we’re stripped away. You can feel the pain still, you can feel the fear and the confusion. CONWAY: Did you visit other countries while you were over there at all? AJANKU: Yes. CONWAY: You said that was your favorite. What other countries? AJANKU: I’ve been to Ghana, I’ve been to Togo, I’ve been to Benin, I’ve been to the Gambia. CONWAY: So you studied dance in all of those countries? AJANKU: Yeah. CONWAY: Okay. AJANKU: Yes. CONWAY: Okay. Alright. So you said now you’re, like, taking at least, maybe, seven tours over there? AJANKU: Mhm. CONWAY: So what else have you done while you are back here? AJANKU: Oh, while I’m here. CONWAY: I mean in the last past 25 years. I know there’s a lot to push in a few minutes, but give me the highlights. AJANKU: Well, the third component of Sankofa Dance Theater is a professional company. And so there are projects that I have done over the 25-year span that are my favorite. And the places where we perform that are just really my favorite–some of the museums in Baltimore are places that I have really fond memories of. I have a relationship with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, and I have done Kwanzaa celebrations there for the past few years. The last one was in December of this year. A thousand people came through the door. And so that’s a really great family day, where you’re taking music and movement and folklore and bringing the traditions of Africa, the authentic traditions of Africa, and then fusing them and using those traditions to talk about this African-American tradition, which is Kwanzaa. The Baltimore Museum of Art and some of our larger concerts, some of my favorite concerts, have taken place on the stage in the auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The last one was done in 2010, the last big one, the biggest. And that was one where I brought contemporary art. The local artist Larry Poncho Brown did over 100 original images and created a digital backdrop. And that digital backdrop changed in time with the scenery that we were and our scenes that we were presenting on stage. The store Sankofa provided artifacts, and those artifacts framed the stage. So our drummers were almost sitting in their own room providing percussion with traditional artifacts on each side and a digital image that moved in time with the dance above their head. And then there were scenes of dance that took us from Nigeria and took us into Senegal and moved from a very spiritual, prayerful opening into a village setting and into a new world phase. So we’ve done some really great things. And then the Walters Art Gallery, we do some great family work, family day work there with a history of doing that. And I think that there are not many venues in Baltimore City that I’ve not touched over 25 years, and there are not many organizations that I’ve not performed with who’ve done artscape time and time again. We’ve danced with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on several occasions. And then there is the Eubie Blake Center that I love. And, you know, just really great venues in Baltimore. Baltimore is a great place to do art. CONWAY: So what’s your current project now? What are you doing today? AJANKU: Exciting stuff. Exciting stuff. I am currently actually a student in–and I’m an MFA candidate, a master of fine arts candidate in curatorial practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It is a moving forward of what I do with Sankofa Dance Theater. It’s my belief and my statement that everything that I’ve done with Sankofa is a curatorial practice. It’s a collection of art forms to be exhibited and to be able to–in an effort to tell a story to an audience. So, in an effort to continue to validate and continue to bring African art to the forefront in a way that shows traditions of Africa, as well as contemporary art, and in a way that will allow me to discuss how African art shows up in contemporary art forms and African images and traditions show up with contemporary fine artists these days, this is what I’m doing. CONWAY: Okay. Alright. We have, like, just a couple of minutes left. You want to share anything about your future plans? Or you want to invite the audience to any future programs or anything like that, your last comments? AJANKU: Last comments. Immediately upcoming at the Walters Art Gallery during the month of March, Sankofa Dance Theater will be performing there. A little further out in the distance, please look for my project that I am doing in regard to my work at MICA, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and a good portion of that–I’m in conversation with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and looking forward to a good portion of that work taking place there. CONWAY: Okay. Well, thank you for coming in and sharing, and thank you for joining me. Okay? AJANKU: Thank you for doing this. CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.
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