Seventeen years ago dancers/choreographers, BaKari E. Lindsay and Charmaine Headley, along with two collaborators, Junia Mason and Mosa Neshama embarked on a journey to celebrate an African aesthetic in dance. They founded COBA, the Collective of Black Artists in Toronto.
The company has flourished since then and has put its stamp on the Toronto cultural scene by showcasing some incredible home grown talent as well as featuring commissioned work from world class artists such as American West African dance pioneer Linda Faye Johnson, percussion virtuoso Baba Olatunji; Senegalese Griot Alassane Sarr; New Yorker, Sis Robin Hibbert; South African soloist, Vincent Matsoe and Haitian dancer/choreographer, Jeanguy Saintus.
We caught up with BaKari for this interview about his organization, his anniversary celebrations and the future of COBA.
WORD: COBA is celebrating its 17th anniversary this year, when you look back at those years since the organization was created, what stands out in your mind?
BAKARI: The development of all the individuals who have been a part of the organization and watching children grow before your eyes when you don’t seem to grow old.
WORD: You and Charmaine Headley are two of the four founding members of COBA who are still heavily involved in the organization. What’s the secret to your long lasting relationship(smile)?
BAKARI: Charmaine and I and Artistic Co-Founders of COBA as well as life partners and there is no real secret to our long lasting relationship. I feel its more the mystery of the Orishas who have willed the relationship. Charmaine and I have very strong personalities…and it is scary when you see them manifest themselves in our son, which, makes for interesting parenting of a teenager, however our energies often support each other. We can be kindred on some things and extremely divergent on others but the common ground is the elevation and respect of African arts, which is the foundation of COBA. It is my strong belief that any relationship that appears to be solid is propelled by deep compromise from one of its components and extreme commitment from both. COBA also has a wealth of supporters who have always been there to prop us up whenever we felt like leaning.
WORD: You’ve traveled extensively commissioned works from choreographers from the African Diaspora, what can we expect at your upcoming celebration?
BAKARI: For Diasporic Dimensions, our upcoming season we are pulling from travels and relationships we have built in Africa and the Diaspora, hence the title. Company member Julia Morris is investigating the Nyabinghi tradition of Jamaica in her work “Hightal” — the company went to Jamaica in 2008 conduct ethnographic research on the Nyabinghi, Kumina, Revivalist and to study L’Antech with L’Antoinette Stines of L’ACADCO — a united Caribbean dance force.
Julia is drawing on these and personal resources in the creation of her new work. Haiti is everywhere in the news these days and I feel numb and ask why Haiti? I was privileged to visit Haiti as a guest artist of Jeanguy Saintus – Artistic Director of Ayikodans, after he created the work Hommage a Erzule on COBA in 1997.
I was awe struck by the resilience of the Haitian people and it is my hope that it is this resilience that will pull them through. Mr. Saintus is again creating on COBA, his third work entitled “Moments”, coincidentally prior to the disaster, Mr. Saintus describes “Moments” as moments of hope, moments of despair, moments of confusion…. Everything in our lives is related to a certain time, a certain space (place) and when everything seems to go wrong, the only way to get through it, is through our beliefs (or within)…. Belief linked to our roots, a calling, a cry. Then come the moments! Moments of faith, Moments Marasa… such irony.
I have always been fascinated with the sounds of the Kora from Mali and although I have not been able to travel there to date I have been enthralled by the sounds of the Kora in other parts of Africa. In “Mande Variations” my new work, I am juxtaposing several elements. Firstly, I am investigating how traditional African dance vocabulary can be used speak outside of its traditional context; highlighting the fact that there are other instruments in Africa other that drums which conjure the same feelings of exuberance; and that Africa does have a royal classical history of kings, queens and royal courts and a musical legacy that accompanies that history. The evening takes you from Mali to Haiti and lots in between, great music and dance that spans several genres.
WORD: Where are we in the development and presentation of black dance expressions in Canada?
BAKARI: This is a difficult question, because I am not quite sure how to define “black dance” because I find that term limiting. Especially in the culturally diverse city of T.O., whom are we and what would we be looking at? Anyway, for COBA, our primary concern is preserve yet push the envelope within African tradition. We are at various stages in our development and you can often find artists who could simply settle for presenting heritage, which buys into the notion that African tradition is static. I am neither interested of supportive of that notion. While I am a strong believer in tradition, I am of the tradition that is reflective and responsive to the present with respect of the past.
WORD: What is an African aesthetic?
BAKARI: An overall polyphonic feel to the dance/dancing body (encompassing democratic equality of body parts with centre of energy, focus and gravity shifting through different parts of the body ─ polymetric and polyrhythmic); articulation of the separate units of the torso (pelvis, chest, ribcage, buttocks); and a primary value placed on both individual and group improvisation.
WORD: Education has always been important to COBA and your organization now has a school for dancers, what can you tell us about that?
BAKARI: COBA, Collective of Black Artists, offers high quality dance training that is supported by a legacy of African history. Our children’s dance and drumming program provides children three years and up with a solid foundation in dance forms that range from Traditional West African, Caribbean Folk, Modern/Contemporary, Hip Hop, Ballet (non-syllabus), along with drumming and vocal chanting. While also offering an inspiring three-year Professional Apprenticeship Program for emerging artists looking for in-depth training in dance and/or music.
A one-year intensive program for dancers and teachers is now also available. The program vision is to nurture artists in perfecting a diverse movement vocabulary with specialized ability in both the traditional and contemporary aesthetics of Africa and the African Diaspora. There is also a range of classes, open to the curious novice with little or no experience to seasoned dance professionals looking to fine tune skills and expand their movement vocabulary. We regularly offer specialty workshops taught by guest griots and master teachers.
With the diverse range of classes and programs, we are still concerned about the legacy of COBA and the next generation, because we are not seeing our student body growing. This is especially frightening in the Professional Apprenticeship Training program where registration is particularly low. This signals that there might be notions that dance is not a possible career and especially in African based dance.
WORD: What’s next for COBA?
BAKARI: A permanent home has been a vision of COBA since its inception and we are dreaming, praying, chanting and shamelessly begging for financial support to make this a reality.