Dance Africa 2023! Zakiya Harris interviews Abdel R. Salaam

This weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the art and history of Ghana will heat up the 46th year of DanceAfrica, the nation’s largest festival dedicated to African diasporic dance and music. I was first introduced to Abdel R. Salaam in 2003 when he served as technical director for Asase Yaa African American Dance Theater’s first concert. Prior to that, I was very familiar with and fond of his work as co-founder and director of Forces of Nature Dance Theatre. I had the honor of working closely with Abdel again for DanceAfrica 2017. That performance garnered Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, Asase Yaa African American Dance Theater, and Illstyle & Peace Productions a Bessie award for Outstanding Production for their collaboration in the production of Healing Sevens; the first time a Bessie had been awarded for African dance. As we are approaching only the second post-COVID in-person DanceAfrica I thought it would be good for people to now hear from the Artistic Director what his thoughts, processes, and vision is as it pertains not only to DanceAfrica but to African and African-centered dance. This is a small excerpt of our wide-ranging conversation.

Ghana Dance Ensemble

What was the process when choosing the international company for Dance Africa?

Myself, Charmaine Warren (Producer) and Coco Killingsworth (Vice President of creative social impact, BAM) spent two weeks auditioning 21 dance companies in Ghana. We saw companies from Accra, the Volta region and Kumasi. Each group presented amazing work. However, we choose to go with The Ghana Dance Ensemble of the National Theatre in Ghana. We knew for certain they would not have any issues obtaining visas and that they had the resources to bring in specialists from other regions of Ghana if necessary.

What is your Artistic vision for the international company?

I always try to have something that is traditional; which is drum and dance. But then to also have something that is experimental. It could be contemporary, it could be different, because Africa is dynamic. It’s not just one thing. When I go to the continent (Africa), I’m looking to push the envelope.

As Artistic Director of Dance Africa, what are some things that you are doing differently than Baba Chuck Davis?

There are many things that Baba Chuck did that I  try to keep in place, because it’s so ingrained in the culture and tradition of Dance Africa. However, one thing that inspired me  to step out and do things differently is remembering when Baba Chuck told me “make sure you do you, make sure you follow your mind.” So in my mind the memorial section of the show was something that I should never let go. I should always honor the ancestors and honor the elders. So when I looked at the memorial that Chuck did, I loved the concept and decided to keep the processional but I wanted to make it more creative. I decided to do a different memorial every year. One that gives honors to our elders and ancestors but also focuses on a particular theme. One year I decided to bring the construct of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. Another new idea was the creation of the Arkestra Africa (orchestra of all African instruments). I’ve always wanted to highlight the music. I wanted to give the musicians a moment and it not just be a drum solo. But a moment where the audience has a chance to sit down and focus on the genius and the music.

What are your thoughts about African dance still not being recognized or held in the same esteem as western styles of dance?

We have to keep doing the work. We have to keep presenting. Dance Africa is doing it, and in 6 different cities (New York, Atlanta, DC, Dallas, and Pittsburg) but we need to create more organizations, more institutions and more festivals. People like you and I have to continue to submit as much creative material and source. Since the pandemic there has been a greater focus in funding circles around diversity. There are more opportunities to gain funding and support to do work that is African and African diasporic centered, but there needs to be more productions. There has to be a greater embracing of it in academia, in the public schools and in the colleges, which is starting to happen now. We have to continue to produce our own work and create partnerships. We have to build organizations where we have collective discussions; where we write, propose and go after the money to be able to produce and present this kind of work. I think its horrific that all of this cultural brilliance of dance and music and who we are is not seen in the way it needs to be seen. But if somebody is blocking your stuff, then you have to unblock it. The only way to unblock it, is to create something. Create something so magnetic that they can’t ignore you.

What should the audience expect from this show and what do you want them to leave feeling or take away from the show?

The audience will see the brilliance of Ghana, it’s power, it’s history, it’s legacy, it’s golden Ghana. This year we are looking back by looking at tradition but we are also looking forward by doing some things different in the present. In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip hop, the memorial will pay tribute to our ancestors in hip hop.

They should come away with a deeper connection and respect for our elders and ancestors. They should come away with a deep understanding of the necessary intergenerational bond between the elders of our community and the youth. They should come away seeing that the diaspora and the continent are connected. They should see that this African mind has an ancient mind, a traditional mind, but also a contemporary mind. I hope it’s entertaining, but that’s for the audience to decide, right? The show will be entertaining, but it’s also educational and thought provoking. Hopefully they will come away with thinking and seeing the beauty of tradition. I hope they come away with a deeper respect for African and African inspired music, through Arkestra Africa, which will be making its second appearance in Dance Africa. There will be something in it for everyone. We have something that honors tradition, our past and our legacy. We have something that honors the things that have been happening here in our present. And hopefully that will give us some insight into some of the things that we can do in the future.

Ghana Dance Ensemble

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