New Moon Ensemble dancers (from left) Megu Hirayama, Alison Parsons and Marita Kennedy-Castro rehearse in Portland's Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — This city is the most culturally diverse patch of land in an otherwise un-diverse state.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish, Italian, Greek, Armenian and Cambodian immigrants arrived, expanding Portland’s prevailing Anglo-Protestant identity. In recent years, folks from East, West and Central Africa have also come to the city, further diversifying local art, food and culture.

In other words, we’re lucky around here.

Portland is even fortunate enough to shelter three distinct, internationally-known, high-energy African dance and drumming groups. One is based in Rwandan traditions, another in Burundian heritage. The third is inspired by Guinean musical forms.

But the groups, all friendly with each other, have never shared a stage. That will change on Labor Day Weekend when they perform together in the vast confines of Merrill Auditorium on Saturday, Sept. 4 at 5:30 p.m.

Co-director Namory Keita (left) leads the New Moon Ensemble drummers Janice Erickson, Maurice Habimfura and Jeff Howe at Portland’s Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The show — “Tales of Bells and Drums” — is a celebration of the resilient human spirit, undimmed by the current, politically divisive, global pandemic.

“We have no reason to dance — and that’s why we have to dance,” said Maurice Habimfura of the Rwandan group Ikirenga Cy’intore. “We need hope and we need to raise spirits. This is the moment.”

Habimfura, a nurse by day, founded Ikirenga Cy’intore with his wife when they arrived in Portland from Rwanda in 2014.

The idea to get together for a group performance first came in 2017 when Habimfura met Yves Karubu while they both worked at Maine Medical Center. Karubu leads Batimbo United, Portland’s Burundian dance and drumming group.

In East Africa, their respective countries are neighboring rivals.

“You know, Rwanda and Burundi, they don’t get along,” Habimfura said, “but when we come here, we are like brothers. In America, we have security. We have everything. We can transmit joy to one another.”

From left (clockwise): Aminata D. Ford dances with the New Moon Ensemble at Portland’s Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24; Jeff Howe drums with the New Moon Ensemble at Payson Park in Portland on Tuesday Aug. 24, 2021; New Moon Ensemble dancers (from left) Megu Hirayama, Alison Parsons, Marita Kennedy-Castro, Ashley Edmondson and Aminata D. Ford rehearse in Portland’s Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24; Megu Hirayama (left) and Alison Parsons of the New Moon Ensemble dance in Portland’s Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

At some point, Namory Keita and his Guinean-inspired, multiethnic drum and dance group, New Moon Ensemble, were also looped into the big show idea.

“Then, every time we met, we reminded ourselves we should do it,” Karubu said.

But it was easier dreamed up than done.

All three groups were busy performing and teaching across the country. Nobody had the time. Then came the pandemic. Suddenly, everyone had extra time but most venues were shuttered.

But now, the time is right. They’re all available and so is a venue big enough for them all.

“I am really excited about it,” Keita said. “We all come from different countries and cultures.”

Marita Kennedy-Castro, co-director of the New Moon Ensemble, dances in Portland’s Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

All three men said they are looking forward to sharing their traditions with one another — and with an audience.

“We need to keep our cultures alive,” Karubu said. “We need to show people the power of these traditions and pass them on.”

Keeping their respective cultures vibrant in Maine is sometimes a hard-fought battle.

“You’ve still got to work two or three jobs — and then go home and practice,” Karubu said. “Carrying a 120-pound drum on your head takes effort.”

Habimfura agrees but said the pandemic has actually increased his group’s enthusiasm.

Maurice Habimfura of of the traditional Rwandan drumming and dance group Ikirenga cy’Intore sits in with the New Moon Ensemble at Portland’s Payson Park on Tuesday Aug. 24, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“It’s easy, in some ways, because people love it,” Habimfura said. “People love to dance and drum, especially in difficult times. People call me and ask if we can go practice and dance. People need it — It’s like food, or drinking water.”

Keita said the group show is totally appropriate because sharing his Guinean music roots is what New Moon Ensemble is all about.

“It’s for joy and happiness,” he said. “We make ourselves a family and share it with the whole city — all of Maine.”

“Tales of Bells and Drums” will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Tickets are available from PortTix.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.