By Andréa Rojas
What other summer jamboree can boast not just a day, but an entire week of festivities perpetuating the artistic practices of over 54 countries? Afrikadey! has just celebrated its 20th year — and along with it, a lasting tradition of the local celebration of African culture.
Starting in the first week of August with various galas, film screenings, discursive symposia, and musical and dance performances, this year’s Afrikadey! culminated in an outdoor gathering at Prince’s Island Park on August 13. From 10 a.m. to midnight, the main stage was occupied by such noteworthy acts as Grammy winner and Beninoise chanteuse Angelique Kidjo, female talking drummer Ara, Sudan-born rhythmic vocalist Dynamq, and Rwandan-Canadian Juno winner Shad.
Tunde Dawodu founded the now-annual event in 1991with the stated purpose of showcasing the life and culture of people of African descent.
“We want to show the presence of Africa within our midst. Of course, when you take a culture from one environment to another one, the new place will somehow dictate how that culture is practiced.
“From that perspective, it’s not about colour. It’s about culture. The idea of this festival is to celebrate this concept and share it.”
This purpose is readily apparent in the meaning of the festival’s name.
“‘Afrikadey’ actually means ‘Africa is well’ or ‘Africa is alive.’ It’s broken English spoken in [the] western part of Africa. So when somebody [asks] you if you’re doing well, they say ‘How you dey?’ and you say, ‘I dey well.’
“‘Afrikadey?’ Every day.”
In Dawodu’s view, Afrikadey! is relevant in light of the social context of Canadian culture characterized today by the oft-referenced “melting pot” of cultures brought about by immigration.
“You have to know who you live with. If you don’t know your next-door neighbour, there’s always going to be a disconnect.”
As the day wore on, it was clear that the other, less-publicized but equally important artistic voices of some of these “next-door neighbours” were struggling to be heard.
During an intermission between mainstage musical acts, a local drumming group, Batafon, captivated the audience on the ground with their West African rhythmic fervour. Jude Dachowski, one of three members of an all-white female dance troupe that performs in accompaniment to Batafon, expressed her excitement at dance performances finally being given a slot in the festival’s schedule, despite taking place far away from the main stage.
“For the past 20 years I’ve been coming to Afrikadey, [Batafon] usually makes it to the [morning] drum circle and we . . . organize an impromptu dance class at the same time.
“This is the first year that we’ve performed ‘for real.’ We basically perform every year, [but this year] we’re officially in the program. [For years,] we’ve been asking and saying, ‘you have local talent — use [it].’ We’re there, we’re willing, so if we’re available, we’ll come.”
The French native also offered an explanation of why those of non-African descent may choose to participate in displays of African custom.
“We just embrace the culture. The music itself is so contagious, you can’t help but move.”
MichÃ¨le Moss, currently on staff with the university’s Department of Dance and credited by Jude and others as the co-founder of the West African dance movement in Calgary, dedicated herself to the art after a 1986 trip to Africa. A workshop in upstate New York that she would attend for 17 years after that further solidified her passion.
Moss, of Jamaican heritage, also co-founded the well-known Calgary dance studio Decidedly Jazz with a colleague. The studio would, like Afrikadey!, prove to be a locale for Westerners to familiarize themselves with the four-pronged concept of African movement, involving “the storytelling, the music, the song [and] the dance,” according to Moss.
The dance professional has an anthropologist’s take on African cultural practices as appropriated by non-Africans such as Dachowski through events such as Afrikadey!.
“There’s a different tradition these days. There’s a different notion about ‘appropriation’ and it’s what this festival is about, which is sharing, celebrating. It may not be your culture, but there are many people here who have travelled to Africa or just listened to the music and gone, ‘That moves me, that connects [with] me.’
“That’s where we need to italicize ‘appropriation’ [of culture] because its not something that’s pejorative. It’s something that . . . you can embrace.”
When asked if she would like to see more dance incorporated into the regularly scheduled events of Afrikadey!, Moss responded “absolutely.” According to her, repeated requests to the festival’s coordinator to do this have gone largely unacknowledged.
“I wish that greater levels of African culture were represented on smaller stages or in other areas — things like this whole [West African dance] subculture that I belong to. We dance and drum, but we are not represented [even though] we are here in the city.
“I would love to see the music and the dance elevated to the highest realm of community participation, recognition, understanding.”
Christie Preston, a West African dance enthusiast who currently teaches classes on the same subject at Central Memorial High School, not only cites Moss as her mentor but shares her views on dance and Afrikadey!.
“Just watching this festival, [I see] so many of us who are interested in West African dance and culture. There’s a huge population, but we’re not represented here [on the main stage].”
Sporadic attendance due to bad weather and year-to-year variation in the number of performances by better-known artists that tend to draw larger crowds (such as last year’s performance by K’naan) has also been a recurring problem.
Sets going over their allotted time slots and last-minute lineup changes meant that the outdoor show, slated to end promptly at 10 p.m., almost snaked its way into the wee hours of the morning. Organizational issues seem to be another difficulty that Dawodu and his colleagues will have to overcome in time for the 21st Afrikadey!.
Nevertheless, this day ended up being more than just an excellent excuse for a non-African journalist to wear beautiful traditional Ghanian garb. A day of soaking up musical performances in the sunshine culminated in everything from playing Frisbee with a 35-year-old hippie to chatting backstage with Shad and his band. In short, this little festival is greater than the sum of its shortcomings, and hopefully will be for years to come. Afrikadey? Every day.