KITTERY, Maine — Wearing a white T-shirt that read “Mommin’ ain’t easy,” while bouncing her young daughter on her back, India Wardell tried her hand at West African dance Thursday evening in a perfect fashion.
Under a luminous August sun, members of Seacoast West African Dance and Drum lit up a crowd in the Rice Public Library’s gardens with unrivaled sounds that filled the Foreside neighborhood.
If you drum, they will come. That’s been the library’s philosophy as far as getting people to attend the unique performances. Little advertising required, the drumming and singing draws in crowds who otherwise had no intention of attending a display of West African culture on any particular evening. But they hear it, and they go.
“It’s such a draw, and people respond intrinsically to it,” Library Director Lee Perkins said. “People hear the drumming and say, ‘I wanna go, I wanna stop by.’”
For Brian Marston, of Lyman, that’s just what happened.
“A few weeks ago I was coming out of work and I heard the music coming out of the Dance Hall,” he said. Every Thursday, the dance and drum troop holds classes in the entertainment space on Walker Street.
Marston wasn’t able to stop in that particular evening, but as a musician himself, he said he would find the music again. It was his first time seeing the group on Thursday.
“I’m going to sit back and listen, see if there’s a way I can muscle my way in with them,” he said.
And muscle in he did. When audience participation was invited, Marston slid into the group and pulled a flute from his pocket, seamlessly pairing a melody with the existing percussion.
Seacoast West African Dance and Drum is led by Liz Fowler and Namory Keita. Fowler has studied West African dance for nearly 25 years alongside teachers from all over the world, while Keita immigrated to the U.S. in 2012 from Guinea, where he was the lead drummer for his village of Sangbarala.
Youth services librarian Jennifer Kelley said the library starting hosting the group when they, too, began to hear the music coming from the Dance Hall on Thursdays.
“It’s very uplifting,” Kelley said. “It’s filled with joy and really lifts your spirits up.”
“The rhythm of the drums, it just gets you,” she added.
Matt Greenwood of Dover, New Hampshire, said he became acquainted with Keita after an event at the Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot. Now, they play together weekly. Greenwood said he has a disability that prevents him from partaking in “American-style” drumming, so the West African techniques have given him a new outlet and way to participate.
“The dancing is really something, too,” Laura Stutz of South Berwick said, sitting with Greenwood while awaiting the performance.
Keita told the crowd, “I am so happy to be here,” dressed in colorful patchwork pants. “I am blessed.” He spoke about his new family in the United States, and how much he’s enjoyed being a part of the local community thus far.
“I will keep serving my community until my last breath,” he said, as he affixed a large drum to the front of his body.
The first song, titled “Balakulandjan,” had lyrics that read, in English, “You can take my diamonds, my goats, my everything, but you cannot take my children away from me.”
The group of dancers moved swiftly through the humid air, later adding stand-up drums to a section of their performance, tapping the drumsticks together harmoniously before hitting the drums themselves. This was known as the “Dundun Dance,” where dancers get a taste of the drums, too.
Of Keita, Fowler said, “To have someone from Guinea to move somewhat close to this area, and to be able to collaborate with him.”
The group encouraged participation, and not long into their performance, children joined in along with moms and dads, mimicking Fowler’s gestures as she led the pack barefoot in the grass.
“This is such a fabulous community event,” Perkins said. “A variety of cultural events are important for our entire community, especially the children, to have an opportunity to engage. [Liz] engages the whole audience, a total immersion, audience participation. It’s another key element of culture that people could possibly miss completely, so it’s a gateway into more opportunities.”
West African dance and drum classes are held every Thursday night at the Dance Hall. For more information, visit seacoastwestafricandanceanddrum.com.
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