Vineyarders moved their feet and hips to the rhythm of Senagalese drummer Aba Diop’s drumming, with encouragement from Senegalese dancer Bakary Fall, in front of Tisbury Water Work’s Tashmoo Springs Building. Thursday’s event was a collaboration between Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and Pathways Arts in Chilmark.
A welcome was given by Pathways Arts director Karen Tonnesen, Charter School director Peter Steedman, and Charter School Spanish teacher Christina Montoya before the performance began. “We’re so grateful to have these incredible artists here sharing their culture with us,” Montoya said.
Diop kicked off the evening with his drumming, starting slow and shifting the pace of the beats. Fall later appeared in a slow, methodical walk, arm outstretched, and changed in and out of his styles of snakish movements, fast and strong steps, and jumps. As Diop’s drums continued to beat, Fall gradually moved to the crowd and took their hands and did a different type of movement in front of each person. Karimah Fall, Bakary’s wife and a dancer, performed a faster dance that shot her hands in all directions with rapid foot movements.
Diop and Bakary received the greatest reactions when they interacted with the crowd, like Bakary shouting keywords in English to give the audience quick instructions, Diop infiltrating the crowd carrying a drum and getting people to dance, and the duo inviting people to their grass area to do or learn dancing. The event concluded with a dance for all of the participants.
The performances, and the artists’ interaction with the crowd, stirred the audience’s hearts.
“This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Leila Blackman, who recently moved to Martha’s Vineyard, said. Before coming to the Island, she was an African dancing and drumming teacher in New York, and it “lifts my spirits” to see the Senegalese performers and the Vineyarders. “This is incredible.”
Diop and Falls also held dance workshops for the Charter School students at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Steedman said the first batch of students to work with the artists were kindergarteners through sixth graders.
“The response from the students was immediate and joyous,” Steedman said. “It was almost like the cathartic release of joyous energy that permeated the entire room. Kids danced, and then they got the teachers dancing. It was just a joyous, joyous time for us.”
Steedman said he was not at the workshop for the middle and high school grade students, but was told “the kids also were thrilled to get up there.”
The workshops helped to spark a light for the students who had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic during their young lives, and “allowed them to express their best selves” and “be free and tap into their inner energy.”
“There were some kids who had been, due to obvious reasons [of] the COVID pandemic, had been pretty reserved and closed off, but then they started dancing,” Steedman said. “It was just incredible to see their smiles. Some kids I hadn’t seen that kind of smile on their face ever in my life.”
For Steedman, seeing the performers from Senegal held a personal significance. He spent a couple of years in Dakar, Senegal, when his father worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and has not had a chance to see Dakar “since 1982.”
“I remember going to villages visiting a Peace Corps volunteer out in the village in the northern part of Senegal,” Steedman said, recalling the singing village residents he saw years ago. “When I saw them singing last night … it took me back to that place.”
The performers were able to come to Martha’s Vineyard from Senegal thanks to a connection between Montoya and Bec Stupak Diop, Aba’s wife and the group’s manager. Montoya follows Bec on Instagram, and when she found out about Steedman’s connections with Senegal, “the wheels started turning.” Montoya said seeing the students and audience “open up” to the drumming and dancing; “it’s like healing.”
“They have such an amazing medicine to give with their music,” Bec said.
Tonnessen said seeing the artists reminds her of Pathways’ “We Dance” summer program.
“We want to get dance back. Just bring kids back into dancing, get the adults back into dancing,” she said. “When I was young, dancing was a part of our [American] culture … like disco dancing, but it was really, really important, and it was a big, huge part of my life and a lot of people’s lives.”
Aba, who spoke through to The Times with Bec as an interpreter, said, “We’re very happy to come here.”
“Our mission in life is this: to come into places where people need to be happy,” Aba said. “God made us so we can go all over the world and to make people happy, to heal people, and our rhythms heal.”
Young and old, the moment dancing begins “is the moment of joy,” according to Aba. He hopes to return and “be a part of the community for many years.”
Bakary told The Times this was the first time he has been to Martha’s Vineyard.
“I love the Island. It’s beautiful. I feel the energy. I feel the peace,” he said. “The people here are so kind.”
The various instruments they brought from Senegal, such as Sabar drums and Tama bongos, display the different cultures within Senegal. “We have a lot of instruments … from different cultures in Senegal. They have the Jola culture, they have Wolof, they have Pulaar. All of that rhythm, we tried to bring all of that to here [on] Martha’s Vineyard. That’s why you can hear many different sounds for the drum,” Bakary said.
Bakary said the Sabar drums are particularly important because the traditional instruments are used for major life events in Senegal, such as a baby shower, an initiation ceremony, and marriage.
“It’s very important to make people happy. That’s why we bring that here, to make everybody here,” he said. “We’ve got to share that all over the world.”
There is “a special family” called gewel, a Wolof word for people also known as griot (Encyclopedia Britannica describes griot as West African traveling musician-historians) in Senegal who have a primary role of playing music, according to Bakary. “They are born to just play music. They can do anything else to play music, singing and dancing. But when you come from there, you’re just going to have that power, for everywhere you go it’s going to be nice and people are going to be happy,” Bakary said, pointing to the free dancing the Vineyarders participated in as an example of the gewel’s work. He said seeing the joy music provided to people makes him want to return and also perform for bigger functions, such as festivals, “to share that with everybody.”
Karimah, who has also never been on the Island before, expressed how excited the people on Martha’s Vineyard were, for the performance was lovely. “You can feel it. Everybody’s responsive, everybody’s dancing with us. They’re smiling, joyous, everybody’s happy. It feels like a real celebration, and that’s exactly what the culture is all about,” she said. “Celebrating your life, giving thanks, you know? Celebrating those who came before you, and being present and happy in the moment.”
Spreading joy and love is a central part of Senegalese culture. Karimah shared a Wolof word, teranga, to explain it to The Times: “Teranga is a way of life … but the foundation is in giving. It’s like sharing. Sharing with other people, being with your family, community. It’s embedded in everything you do,” Karimah said. “You eat together, you talk together, you dance together. Something special happens, you’re happy for that person, you celebrate that person, you let them know you’re proud of them. The people are very connected.”
The group also held dancing and drum classes at the Milokan Cultural Center in Chilmark on Friday. Steedman said there are plans to bring the artists back with a larger crew of performers from Senegal next year.