Local drum collective brings West African culture to Vermont

Ethnic West African percussion and color filled Burlington’s City Hall last weekend as part of the West African Drum and Dance Festival.The 15th annual festival, organized by local collective Jeh Kulu, drew people from across the nation between Nov. 5 and 8. In addition to dance and drum classes offered by teachers from Guinea, Senegal, Mali and the Ivory Coast, the public was able to enjoy performances by Jeh Kulu and guests. Jeh Kulu, which means “community” in Bambala, a Mali language, hopes to “raise cultural awareness, create a sense of community and at the same time, have fun,” according to their website. “The idea is to open people’s eyes to difference and to show how sharing cultures can be done,” assistant artistic director Jamaica White said.White, a lifelong dancer, has served as Jeh Kulu’s assistant artistic director for the last 12 years. Originally trained in ballet, she has grown to love the West African dance because of its universal similarities. “Dance is about expressing yourself and connecting with other people,” White said.Jeh Kulu specializes in the many dance and drum styles of West Africa. The different rhythms and dances are used for a wide variety of ceremonies and rites of passage.”Drums are a part of so many different parts of life. There are ceremonies for birth, weddings, the harvest, everything,” musical director Ismael Bangoura said.Like White, Bangoura has been part of Jeh Kulu for 12 years. In his time with the group, the ensemble has developed a powerful way to delve into the vibrant West African culture.”The idea is to share the culture of Africa. This has become easier as we have invitedAfrican guests to perform and teach – it’s totally different now. We have created a group for ourselves and for the culture,” Bangoura said. “I’m proud of the group for sharing culture with everyone.”Jeh Kulu does manage to share culture with the public in a vibrant and exciting way. As Bangoura and about 10 other drummers performed, a collection of dancers learned and displayed Guinean dance steps.The dances were extremely energetic and expressive, with strong arms and powerful stomping. Maria Clinton, a participant from New Hampshire, said that the class was all she had hoped for.”It was a really exciting class. I learned a bunch about dance and had a lot of fun doing it. The steps had a sort of humor, and the energy was great,” she said.Energy and expression are recurring themes of drums, dance and the festival as a whole. The daughter of artistic director White, 9-year-old  Awa has danced since she could walk. She is truly a testament to Jeh Kulu’s goals.”You get energy [from dance],”  Awa said. “And you do it to have fun.” The dances tell stories, and this year’s Jeh Kulu performance was about peace and overcoming war, White said.Her knowledge of the culture, the dances and the stories represents a new generation of culturally conscious Vermonters influenced by of Jeh Kulu.