Before Abdel R. Salaam traveled to Ghana last fall, he didn’t have deep knowledge of its music and dance traditions. But the country held a special association for him dating back to when Chuck Davis celebrated it at DanceAfrica, the festival he founded. It was 1978, the festival’s second year, and Davis’s opening words were a call and response in the Twi language: “Ago! Ame!”
Those words refer to the willingness to listen, to pay attention. It’s a memory that stuck with Salaam, now the festival’s artistic director who this week brings Ghana back to the DanceAfrica stage. After immersing himself in the country’s culture — and holding auditions for 21 companies in different regions — he landed on a title: “Golden Ghana: Adinkra, Ananse and Abusua.”
Before its independence, in 1957, Ghana was known as the Gold Coast. But Salaam was thinking beyond that. He likens “Golden Ghana” to the idea of “living my life like it’s golden,” as Jill Scott sings. “You want to reach for not just material gold, but the highest level of light,” Salaam said. “It’s inner light.” (Adinkra relates to symbols linked to the wisdom; Ananse, from folklore, is often shown as a spider and is known for qualities that include intelligence and mischievousness; Abusua refers to family.)
The festival’s performances, which begin Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, feature the National Dance Company of Ghana. (DanceAfrica also includes a film festival and a lively bazaar that spills into the streets of Fort Greene.) The company will present a wealth of traditional works, including Kete, an elegant court dance from the Eastern and Ashanti regions instilled with reverence and dignity. The hands and the arms roll and swirl through space as if delicately painting the air. As Salaam said, “It’s gorgeous.”
The national company, which was formed in 1962, features dancers from all regions. “You’re getting the best of all the dances,” said Coco Killingsworth, the vice president of creative social impact at the academy. “We’re getting a taste of all of it.”
While the first half of the program features performances that combine African forms with hip-hop and modern dance, the second will focus on traditional Ghanaian dances. Those include Jera, originally created for hunters, in which the dancers wear a pillow attached to their waist that bounces as their footwork quickens. “It looks like a sexual or sensual dance, but it’s not,” said Stephany Ursula Yamoah, the company’s artistic director, explaining that the pillow is “to show off their medicines. When you go hunting, you can get hurt. You have to prepare.”
In Tigali, a religious dance — it relates to “a prayer or communing with god,” Yamoah said — a dancer wears a flowing Batakari top, which floats around as he spins, adding more layers of movement. Atsea, playful and youthful, is a dance for young women with a sole purpose: to show off. It’s fast and energetic; dancers hold pieces of horsetail, which they use to cut and slice through space with sharp, unified fervor.
For Sohu, based on sacred dances, the company will be joined by members of the BAM Restoration Dance Youth Ensemble. Yamoah and Kofi Anthonio, the Ghanaian company’s associate artistic director, were impressed with how well they had learned the choreography via video. But the act of coming together onstage isn’t just about dancing.
“You need to leave a footprint,” Anthonio said. “How do you do that with the generation that is coming up, so they can also relate with Ghana?”
“The youth of today need to progress,” he added, “but they need to progress wisely. They need to progress learning from their elders.”
To look forward, in other words, you need to look back, which connects to what Salaam called the vibrations of Ananse, the spider — its spirit and its web as it relates to ancestors. Ananse, Yamoah said, is also a metaphor for wisdom and creativity, as well as for community and unity. “Is Ananse still relevant in our present age?” she wondered.
“When we say someone weaves a net and someone is a weaver, they have to be creative,” she added. “Ananse is a mathematician, Ananse is a scientist — everything around us is Ananse.
It takes intelligence to weave a web: “It needs concentration,” she said. “It needs technique. It’s very intricate. So this is about the complexities of life. We are all different, but we are woven together.”
The first half of the program looks to that idea of unity with a scene set in a nightclub that honors hip-hop, and features the DanceAfrica Spirit Walkers; later, they’re joined by six Restoration dancers and the national company performing a Ghanaian version of the Bus Stop, a social line dance.
While in Ghana, Salaam and his colleagues from the Brooklyn Academy didn’t just study trained dancers; they went to clubs. Even though they were exhausted, Killingsworth said: “I was like, we’re going out. We’re going to do more than the companies, more than the auditions. I definitely had to drag us all out every time we went. But it really paid off.”
Salaam agreed. “We walked into one, and we’re listening to Motown songs sung by a Ghanaian band,” he said. “And then they flip and they go into their traditional Ghanaian Afrobeat stuff. It was mind blowing.”
At another club, it was a salsa evening. “And so it was nothing but Ghanaians doing salsa to Eddie Palmieri and that was just mind blowing,” he said. “So I’m looking at how the diaspora became what it is here and that cross-pollination between how the two sides have fed each other.”
When it comes to DanceAfrica, Killingsworth likes to look at the bigger picture. What can be brought to Brooklyn from Ghana? “A part of the process of putting the show together was going out at night and seeing this world,” she said. “It was so much a part of our experience.”
As was watching performances outside, which is a challenge with bringing traditional dance to the proscenium stage. “It’s very exciting to see how it translates,” Killingsworth said. “It’ll always be a translation. But I think the willingness to try to translate all of what we did and what we experienced is really bold and exciting.”