Njeri Plato, founder of Delou Africa Dance Ensemble, a traditional West African performing arts company, started the African Diaspora Dance and Drum Festival of Florida in 2010 with the goal of bringing together the community to embrace and understand African diaspora, as well as to pay tribute to victims of gun violence, both locally and nationally.
She says part of the mission of the community-focused event, which took place at the Little Haiti Cultural Center on Saturday, is to bridge cultural gaps.
“I think, in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’re from,” Plato said, explaining why it’s important for people to connect with their roots. “We have to teach our children and even ourselves to respect each other’s cultures, because culture is a way of life. I respect yours and you respect mine, and we come together as a diaspora.”
Since its inception, the event, which features African and Caribbean dance, drum and music workshops, raffles for tickets to South Africa and an artisan marketplace, has drawn more than 3,500 people who’ve learned about African culture in interactive and fun ways.
Kiah Graham, a local dancer and dance teacher, took two classes at the event: Afro-Cuban dance taught by Marisol Blanco, and indigenous dance from Guinea, West Africa, taught by Mohamed DaCosta, a senior lecturer in African Performing Arts in the School of Theatre and Dance and the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida.
“It’s an initiation dance for boys and girls in puberty,” Graham said of one of DaCosta’s classes, which mixes African history, traditions and dance together.
“It’s not just about dancing; it’s a culture,” said DaCosta of this type of dance native to his homeland. He was born and raised in Guinea before living and teaching in the U.S. “From a naming ceremony to a welcoming ceremony — everything goes with the dance and drumming.”
Although this festival takes place once a year, African dance classes are offered Sunday afternoons to the public year-round for $12 at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.
“They love it,” adds DaCosta of first-time dancers. “Some get so into it, they never want to leave. They always want to be part of it.”
On the outside patio of the cultural center, coconut tops were hacked off with straws dunked in the fruit, offering a refreshing respite from the the first day of August’s sticky heat. Curry goat and jerk chicken were served, as were avocado and mango pie slices for purchase. In a pop-up Children’s Village, kids got their faces painted while people crowded around the center’s long windows and doors to watch local dancers of all skill levels and backgrounds shake and stomp to the rhythms of African music. Handmade earrings and headwraps, many with the colors of the African flag, were sold by local vendors.
“Keeping our children safe is what we’re doing here, getting them involved in cultural activities and activities overall,” said Plato of the event and of the ongoing youth programs that her company, Delou Africa, hosts at the cultural center and at local schools.
“Drumz Over Gunz (Character Development for Young Males) is one of those programs, where young men ages 13 through 18 are taught African drum, masquerade, and acrobatics “as tools to build communication, peace, and collaboration.” One of a handful of youth programs offered seasonally, this one encourages at-risk local males to to express themselves artistically, instead of with violence.
A panel of guest speakers closed out the event with a discussion on gun violence and ways to keep kids safe and engaged in the community. “It Takes a Village: Keeping our Community in Unity,” was led by The Better Living Community Symposium, a panel including Fedrick Ingram, president of United Teachers of Dade; Miami-Dade County Police Lt. Chiquita Thomas; a motivational speaker; and people who have been directly impacted by gun violence, including a Miami Gardens woman whose grandson was killed and granddaughter still has fragments of bullets in her leg when gunfire erupted as they were walking outside of their home.
“Doing the symposium ties in what we’re trying to do, which is keeping our community safe,” Plato said.
To register a child for African music-based youth programs, visit delouafrica.com/youth-programming.