Wofabe festival celebrates anniversary with sizzling Newark show

Participants in the Wofabe African Dance and Drum Festival, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Participants in the Wofabe African Dance and Drum Festival, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

The Wofabe African Dance and Drum Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in style with a sizzling performance at the Victoria Theater of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Victoria Theater in Newark, March 12. Organized by choreographer Karen Love, whose Umoja and Usaama dance companies were among the groups performing, the festival has become a rallying point and a focus of pride for the city’s African-American community. Dance classes and drumming workshops led by guest artists are also a feature of this treasured local institution.

This year’s culminating event attracted many visitors from New York and from states as far away as Massachusetts. DeBorah Gray, affectionately known as “Momma D,” was the mistress of ceremonies, a gentle presence who introduced the artists and kept the show going during scene changes by reciting thoughtful poems of affirmation.

Even before Momma D could pour the traditional libation welcoming the ancestors, however, the music of the drums electrified the crowd. One by one, each member of a talented group of youngsters joined in with his instrument until, together, these “djembe juniors” made a mighty sound. Underscoring the educational aspect of the festival and the important role it plays in cultural transmission, the boys supplied an enchanting welcome.

Soon professional musicians took over, introducing more percussion instruments and more complex rhythms as they accompanied the Usaama and Umoja dancers in a joyful “West African Suite.” Groups of women and girls took turns center stage, dancing with speed, energy and grace. They pranced and leaped, tossing their heads, while hands flicked, shoulders pulsed and hips rocked, embodying multiple rhythms.

The Wofabe Festival does not confine itself to presenting dances from the Mother Continent, however. After public school students with the Newark Dance Ensemble passed through, attention turned to the African Diaspora with the Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble, from New York. Conga drums appeared while a singer called out a greeting to runaway slaves, and women with long, ruffled skirts clapped their hands and spun in circles. When a male soloist joined them, he struck himself and crawled beneath the women’s legs. He released a burst of white powder, making the women fall aside in an apparent faint, and as the dancing built in intensity they convulsed, simulating trance possession.

In the second half of the program, our view of the Diaspora changed to North America and the Harambee Dance Company, from The Bronx, offered a slick jazz ensemble choreographed by Eddie Stockton. In the sultry duet that followed, Linae McDonald offered Sandella Malloy his hand, and she coolly mounted his shoulder as a prelude to spinning, acrobatic lifts. Dancers and musicians embraced their African heritage in a section called “Awareness”; and the final section, “Freedom,” portrayed an urban street scene complete with gawking tourists and an agile breakdancer. Like the other groups, Harambee brought its own musicians, and when the company drummers stepped forward to take solos the audience responded with gleeful enthusiasm, tossing wadded bills at the stage.

There was more to come.

Asase Yaa African-American Dance Theatre had a political message to deliver, in a piece called “Djembe in the New Millennium.” Here a female vocalist challenged us. “Are you ready to stand up and fight for the cause?” she demanded. “Put up your fist and rise up!”

The women dancers of this company, however, had a gentle and relaxed style, seeming to take more time while performing some of the same African dance steps we had seen before. An imposing male dancer became the focus of this piece, however, commanding attention as he paused, sauntered and then sprang into action. Adding to the evening’s musical variety, the Asase Yaa ensemble included bass guitar and a kind of marimba as well as drums.

When all these groups returned to the stage together, in a choreographic rush arranged by Kamille King and Kcykiiyu Zahir, the energy was overwhelming. The Wofabe Festival has presented many ambitious programs over the years, but this evening was surely one of the best. Complete with an awards ceremony and a Resolution from the City of Newark Municipal Council commending Karen Love and her Umoja group, it acknowledged this festival’s powerful spirit and a decade of heartfelt dancing.

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