Just settling into my new position and armed with funding from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, I was tasked with curating a new round of ACTA’s signature Traditional Arts Roundtable Series (TARS) throughout LA County. The Series, which began in 2008, was designed to strengthen intercultural arts networks and to offer opportunities for traditional and tradition-based artists and arts advocates to learn from one another through intimate discussion, technical assistance, skill-building, networking, and sharing community-based arts and culture.
As soon as I began brainstorming possible topics, I knew immediately that I wanted the opening roundtable to have a focus on the African diaspora. More specifically, on the Central African Legacy in Afro-Latin popular music. In previous years, I had been producing music and dance events that brought together Afro-Latin performers—primarily Brazilian, Cuban, and Puerto Rican—but I was eager to broaden that to include Afro-Colombian, Afro-Peruvian, and Garifuna, as well as African American art forms.
The African-derived music and dance of the diaspora share similar histories of slavery and European colonization. Much of the African heritage of these cultures is often attributed to West African origins, in large part due to the emphasis placed by scholars on the deity worship religions of santería and candomblé, of Cuba and Brazil, respectively. However, little focus has generally been given to the fact that the popular music and accompanying round dances such as bomba, samba, and rumba actually have their roots in the Central African Kingdom of Kongo, in the diverse peoples that make up the Bantu ethno-linguistic group. Assembling a panel of tradition-bearers, practitioners, scholars, and historians of various traditions, I sought to have a deep discussion on the topic.
Brasil Brasil Cultural Center provided a perfect setting for the event. Founded in 1989 by Mestre Amen Santo, a master capoeira practitioner from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, BBCC/Capoeira Batuque is one of the oldest capoeira schools in Southern California. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art of Central African origin that developed over centuries by enslaved Afro-Brazilians. Today, with its worldwide popularity, capoeira is arguably one of the most visible cultural forms of Bantu origin.
Joining Mestre Amen for the discussion were Rony Figueroa and Cheryl Noralez, founders of Garifuna American Heritage Foundation United, Inc.; Eduardo Martinez Arvilla, Afro-Colombian musician; Hector Luis Rivera, poet and Puerto Rican bomba musician; and Sonny Batata, a Tata Nkisi Malongo of Brillumba Kongo tradition and a ceremonial drummer and gallo (singer) for Palo Monte ceremonies. Among the participants were community members, musicians, dancers, capoeiristas, Ifá pracitioners, and Afro-Latin cultural enthusiasts who shared stories that connected with the guest artists, and to each other.
Side by side, tambores, congas, barriles, and atabaques are remarkably similar, despite their respective countries of origin being separated by centuries of history, language, and colonial legacies. Short bursts of percussion could only punctuate the shared anecdotes for so long before they gave way and the discussion turned into a dance party. As various rhythms were shared by the guest artists, they seemed to easily find a corresponding dance or song among the participants. Whether sung in Caribbean Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, or Garifuna, the music also connected dancers through movement. In the tiny footsteps of the samba, the sway of the hips of the bamboula, or in the proud swagger of the shoulders of a bomba dancer, the rarely acknowledged “Bantu factor” made its presence known.