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Beat of the world

Shutesbury students study African drumming, dancing

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Shutesbury Elementary School pre-kindergarten students perform during an African drumming and dancing show Thursday at the school.

    JERREY ROBERTS
    Shutesbury Elementary School pre-kindergarten students perform during an African drumming and dancing show Thursday at the school.

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Marilyn Sylla warms up the crowd before a group of her students at Shutesbury Elementary School perform African drumming and dancing Thursday at the school.<br/>Sylla is a dance educator for the five colleges and the director of Bamidele Dancers and Drummers.

    JERREY ROBERTS
    Marilyn Sylla warms up the crowd before a group of her students at Shutesbury Elementary School perform African drumming and dancing Thursday at the school.
    Sylla is a dance educator for the five colleges and the director of Bamidele Dancers and Drummers.

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Shutesbury Elementary School pre-kindergarten students perform during an African drumming and dancing show Thursday at the school.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Marilyn Sylla warms up the crowd before a group of her students at Shutesbury Elementary School perform African drumming and dancing Thursday at the school.<br/>Sylla is a dance educator for the five colleges and the director of Bamidele Dancers and Drummers.

SHUTESBURY — Distance proved no obstacle for the students and faculty of Shutesbury Elementary School, who spent five days this month learning traditional African drumming, dancing and language during an artist-in-residency program.

Marilyn and Sekou Sylla of the Shutesbury-based world beat group Bamidele Dancers and Drummers, led a program that culminated in a student performance before a packed auditorium just prior to winter break. The show featured songs and dances from Senegal, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Sekou’s home country of Guinea.

“It’s a great cross-cultural experience and it exposes them to much more of what’s outside their world here in Shutesbury and in New England,” said Principal Maureen Ryan. “It deepens cultural understanding, and it’s also great aerobics.”

Ryan said artist-in-residency programs give students “a unique perspective beyond what is provided for in our curriculum.”

Marilyn Sylla said programs like this play a role in community-building and developing cultural understanding.

“We see so many negative images of Africa and the Caribbean, but it’s important for people to know that what you see on TV — the child soldiers, starvation, wars and famine — is not all that there is to Africa and to the Caribbean,” Sylla said. “There’s a lot of beauty in the people and in the culture, and dance and music is part of the culture.

As students took to the stage Dec. 19, dressed in brightly colored shirts emblazoned with various African designs, symbols and artwork, the darkened auditorium resonated with the sound and energy of rhythmic drumming. Marilyn Sylla conducted each grade’s individual piece while Sekou sang along and accompanied them on percussive instruments.

The Syllas proved to be adept at spurring audience participation and enthusiasm, with many clapping along. Audience members lining the walls danced along with children, chanting the words to the songs in a call-and-response fashion.

During the introduction of the fifth- and sixth-graders’ performance of a Haitian song called the “Iba,” Sekou Sylla told a story about how Africans brought to Haiti to become slaves had written the song as a way of “breaking the chains” of their servitude. He urged the audience to raise hands above heads, symbolically breaking the chains of something they felt was enslaving them. As part of the dancing portion of the song, the students held up and pulled apart chains made of craft tissue and old newspaper.

Following the kindergarten class’s performance of the “Mandiane,” a Guinean dance of birthday celebration, school staff and faculty gave an energetic performance of the Ivory Coast’s carnival dance “Djole,” eliciting a roaring applause from the audience. Other performances, which included the Malian peace and healing dance “Lamba” and the Senegalese welcoming dance “Funga,” evoked similar responses.

The show was dedicated to Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and first black president, who died Dec. 5. In 1990, the Bamidele Dancers and Drummers were selected to perform in front of Mandela during his visit to Boston — an experience that Marilyn Sylla said will “always be in her heart and a part of who she is.”

After the final song, she invited the audience onto the stage to experiment with instruments, which sparked a rush of children and adults alike and filled the room with a cacophony of rhythmic noise.

Parents said they’d like to see more such residencies.

The Syllas have previously conducted two other artist-in-residency programs at Shutesbury Elementary, one in 2009 and another in 2004.

Ryan said the partnership is a good one.

“African dancing is very inclusive, and everyone really gets into it,” she said. “There’s such joy in drumming, if you really give yourself to it. Marilyn is great at getting the whole audience involved.”

Long-time residents of the town, the Sylla’s children, son J.J. and daughter Lucy, attended the school from pre-kindergarten to grade 6.

Marilyn Sylla is also a Five College dance lecturer based at Smith College in Northampton, where she teaches African, Caribbean and South American dance. Sekou Sylla previously served as the principle dancer, acrobat and musician with Les Ballet Africains, Guinea’s national dance company until he moved to Massachusetts in 1996. He is a Five College musician and teaches African drums at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. Both have participated in residencies and taught at colleges and universities worldwide.

The Bamidele group was formed in 1983 by Marilyn’s first husband to preserve the tradition of African and African-rooted cultures through dance, music and song.

“We try to give the kids a little taste of culture, not just with the dance and music, but also with the language,” said Marilyn Sylla. “They’re learning about other people, and that’s really important because people are afraid of what they don’t understand, but once they do understand they become a little more comfortable. It bridges gaps, and it fosters good will and harmony.”

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