Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble

Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble

Since its creation, Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble has established a national reputation as a unique and dynamic performing company. Kulu Mele's repertoire is an exciting blend of West African ancestral tradition and African American creativity. Performances include music and dance of Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba and African America. A force behind a vital African cultural renaissance in Philadelphia, the Ensemble teaches and performs both new and traditional works. All dances are authentically costumed and choreographed to convey not only artistic excellence but also the meanings of dancing and drumming in the African societies from which these traditions come.

Kulu Mele includes the following artists: Baba Robert Crowder (founder), Dorothy Wilkie (artistic director), John Wilkie (music director), Zoia Cisneros (dancer), Kenneth Fauntleroy (drummer), Omar Salahu-din Harrison (drummer), Gregory "Ishmale" Jackson (drummer), Ama Schley (dancer) , Payin Schley (dancer), and Angela Watson (dancer).

For booking inquiries, contact Dorothy Wilkie at kulumele@aol.com.


History and Mission

Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble has for more than 30 years been a vital driving force behind the African cultural renaissance in Philadelphia. The company presents African American dance traditions rooted in the cultures and aesthetic values of the African Diaspora, blending West African ancestral traditions and African American creativity. Kulu Mele draws on the musical and movement forms of Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana, and the Senegambia region, as well as African American vernacular traditions including Hip-hop, Bop, Cha-cha, and Slop. Performances and workshops vividly convey to audiences (and especially to young people) both the artistic excellence in their midst and the meanings of dancing and drumming in the African and African Diasporan societies from which these traditions come. Vibrant dances are always presented with authentic and compelling costumes; choreography is developed by company members, and by master dancers and choreographers from home countries. Kulu Mele has kept the culture alive. . .


Artistic Lineage

Kulu Mele is the fruit of many people’s dreams. There is a strong feeling of extended family among Kulu Mele members. Most of us have been keeping the culture, perpetuating African culture together, for many decades. We are committed to learning. Since our beginnings thirty years ago, Kulu Mele members have searched out unparalleled educations in discrete drum and dance traditions from the Diaspora. To learn, preserve and continue this priceless community heritage of music and dance, Kulu Mele members have apprenticed themselves to older recognized masters and artists, traveling to study music and dance, and to become immersed in the cultures and traditions of Senegal, Guinea, Cuba and elsewhere. Apprenticeships and study tours include: Orisha dance apprenticeship in Cuba with Cutumba (2002); Senegambian Dance Apprenticeship in Guinea with M’Bemba Bangoura (2000); Company Apprenticeship in Guinean dance with Tenenfig Dioubate (2003); Apprenticeship in Senegalese dance with Assane Konte (2004).


Awards

Kulu Mele has received some of the region’s most prestigious awards and competitive grants including:

  • Founder Baba Crowder: Pew Fellowship in the Arts; Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship, PCA Master Traditional Artist.
  • Artistic Director Dorothy Wilkie: Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Folk Arts Apprenticeship (numerous times), Leeway Foundation, and Independence Foundation.
  • The ensemble: support from the Dance Advance funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by Drexel University, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.
  • Individual enemble members have also received support from Leeway and PCA.

Workshops

Kulu Mele offers a wide range of workshops in African diasporan dance and music— from single session participatory programs and lecture-demonstrations to long-term residencies. We teach specific dances (along with rhythms and music), dance and drum technique, related dress and cultural protocols, the interrelationship of drum rhythms and dance, and the particular values and traditions that inform songs and dances. As well, when working with young people we teach, from our own experiences, how to find and follow a dream and how to develop creativity and artistic potential.

Kulu Mele is on the rosters of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts- Arts in Education Program, Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour (PennPAT), and Young Audiences of Southeastern Pennsylvania roster. Kulu Mele members have been teaching in the Philadelphia Folklore Project’s Folk Arts and Multicultural Education program for six years. Help in funding residencies and performances: Some of these programs, including PCA-AIE and Penn-PAT, have grant programs through which subsidies for Kulu Mele workshops and performances may be available. Contact Kulu Mele for more information.


Performances

Kulu Mele performs in a wide range of places—community gatherings, universities, theaters, concert halls, recreation centers, weddings, and festivals. We are able to work as a full ensemble or as individual dancers and drummers. Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble presents a wide range of concerts, programs, workshops, and residencies based on our extensive repertoire, for audiences and participants of all ages. Rates and programs are negotiated with each site.

Selected performances and workshops include:
ODUNDE (Philadelphia, PA)
Dance Africa, Brooklyn Academy of Music (Brooklyn, NY)
Dance Boom! Wilma Theater (Philadelphia, PA)
Philly Dance Africa, Philadelphia Folklore Project (Philadelphia, PA)
Baltimore African American Museum (Baltimore, MD)
African American Museum in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA)
Keswick Theater (Glenside, PA)
University of Pennsylvania Museum (Philadelphia, PA)
Scranton University (Wilkes-Barre, PA)
Lantern Theater Company (Philadelphia, PA)
Philadelphia Zoo (Philadelphia, PA)
Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA)
Asociacion de Musicos Latinos Americanos (Philadelphia, PA)



Member Biographies

Baba Crowder (Founder and Director/Drummer) began drumming as a child in North Philadelphia in the late 1930s. Africa attracted him even then, and he sought out every opportunity to hear great drummers like Jean Leon Destine (Haiti), Chano Pozo and Desi Arnaz (Cuba), and Ladji Camara (Guinea). He began to to see commonalties between African music from different places, and began "searching for our lost heritage." He found ways to school himself, and began to study with percussionist John Hines after Hines had just finished a tour in Cuba with Katherine Dunham. In the 1940s-1960s, Crowder learned Haitian, Brazilian, and African drum traditions from native artists, including Ghanaian drummer Saka Acquaye, who was highly influential. (Crowder recorded an album with Acquaye in the 1960s that has recently been re-released by Nonesuch) In these years, Crowder also lived near and worked with many fine jazz musicians, including McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. After the revolution in Cuba, Lazaro Prieto and his mother Rita, from Matanzas, arrived in Philadelphia; Crowder's education in music and culture deepened. Ms. Prieto was one of the people responsible for Crowder's enlightenment into the orisha world. One of the first African American drummers in Philadelphia to study bata drumming, Crowder has long been in the vanguard of an African cultural renaissance in Philadelphia. Several generations of African American dancers and drummers, both in Philadelphia and New York, now trace their roots through him. He has received the region's most prestigious award for artists, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The Lee Cultural Center, where Kulu Mele has long taught and rehearsed, has a mural on its walls honoring Crowder.

Dorothy Wilkie (Artistic Director/Choreographer) began to pursue serious study of a wide repertoire of African and African Diasporan dance in 1955, approaching the genre as both an art form and (eventually) as an aspect of her spiritual practice as an orisha devotee and initiate. She gained a dance education primarily through regular attendance at dance and drumming conferences such as Kankouran, active participation in bembés, formal apprenticeships, self-guided study, and attendance at regular classes and workshops. She has pursued intensive study of Nigerian and Ghanaian dance with master drummer Robert Crowder, and with Saudah Bey, and has studied with Jackie Corley, James Marshall, Baba Ishangi, Xiomara Rodrigez (Afro-Cuban), Tenenfig Dioubate, M'Bemba Bangoura and Youssouf Koumbassa (Guinea) and others. She has also pursued formal study in Guinea with Les Ballets Africaine (2000), in Senegal with the National Dance Company of Senegal (2003), and in Cuba. She has performed with such e embles as Chuck Davis, Nuevo Generacion, and Ilu Aiye. She choreographs Odunde's Hucklebuck to Hip-Hop productions featuring African American vernacular social dances like the Mambo, Bop, Slop, and the Cha-Cha - dances she excelled in growing up in North Philadelphia. Wilkie also choreographs the bulk of Kulu Mele's repertoire. She has choreographed for Lantern Thater Company and African Rhythms at the University of Pennsylvania.

John Wilkie (Music Director/Drummer) started playing conga drums in the 1950s in high school in North Philadelphia. His first mentor and teacher were William Powell and Charles Brown, both noted percussionists among the first generation of Philadelphians to undertake extensive study of African and African Cuban hand-drum traditions. Later, Wilkie met Robert Crowder, and studied Bata under him, as well as Garvin Masseaux, master Cuban drummer Kikiyu (Enrique Admiral), and a circle of others. At this time, in the 1970s, Wilkie began a member of the Kulu Mele African Dance Ensemble. While studying with Kikiyu he began drumming at bembes, spiritual gatherings, and workshops. He began studying under "Kwesi," Darrell Burgee, learning djembe and West African drumming. In the early 1990s, he then joined the company Jaasu Ballet. He has traveled to Guinea, Senegal, and Cuba for drum study. He has been a member of the Spoken Hand Drum Society and a Philadelphia Folklore Project artist in residence.

Zoia Cisneros (Dancer) from Caracas, Venezuela, has been studying traditional Venezuelan and Caribbean dance since she was six. She came to the U.S. in 1993 and widened her study of dance, exploring modern, jazz, West African, hip-hop and capoeira. She earned a BA in Anthropology and French from Bates College and has received fellowships for dance education and dance research that have allowed her to work in her native Venezuela as well as in Trinidad, Martinique, Gambia, Senegal and Australia. In addition to dancing with Kulu Mele, she has also performed in Philadelphia with Clyde Evans, Jr.'s CHOSEN (House, Breakin', Hip Hop, Poppin' and Lockin' forms of Hip Hop dance) and Montazh (an all-women modern-jazz and hip hop dance company) and Tania Isaacs Dance Projects (a contemporary Caribbean and modern dance company).

Kenneth Fauntleroy (Drummer) first came to Kulu Mele in the 1970s after studying congas and batá drums with Robert Crowder. He has traveled to Haiti and Cuba for study. In addition to playing with Kulu Mele, he has performed with the Ione Nash Dance Company, Spoken Hand Drum Society, and with jazz greats including Philly Joe Jones, Sun Ra, and Byard Lancaster. Fauntleroy also teaches percussion at the Lee Cultural Center and in other after-school programs.

Omar Salahu-din Harrison (Drummer) has been studying djembe drumming since 1998. He first played conga drums with a local Philadelphia ensemble called the Young Lions, and went on to further study of conga (African American, Haitian, Cuban, Congolese, and Ghanaian), batá (Nigerian, Cuban), djembe (Malian, Guinean, Ivory Coast, and Senegalese), and sabar and kutiro drums (Senegalese). His teachers include Ken "Skip" Burton, Greg "Peache" Jarmon, Baba Robert Crowder, John Wilkie, and African native masters such as Malle Fainke and Kissima Diabate.

Gregory "Ishmale" Jackson has performed as a percussionist at the Wilma, Zellerbach, Painted Bride, African American Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Odunde, the New York Street Festival and elsewhere. Jackson has studied with Baba Robert Crowder, John Wilkie, Greg "Peache" Jarman, Mussa and the National Benin Folklorical Ensemble (Benin), and M'Bemba Bangoura (Guinea). Mr. Jackson has played for E.A.S.Y-BO Montu and Elegba Society in Virgina, and is presently with the Little Africa Drum ensemble (specializing in Cuban Rumba), and Troupe DADA, as well as Kulu Mele.

Ama Schley started dancing long before she can recall. Her mother, Carol Butcher, who danced and performed with the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, would take Ama and her twin sister, Payin, to rehearsals, dance classes, and performances. It was in these settings that her mother saw Schley's passion for dance. Schley began studying jazz, tap, ballet, African and modern at La Cher Tari Dance School. She stopped dancing in 1991 but returned to it when she moved to San Diego, California to study African dance with her father Yaw Asiedu. She performed with several companies directed by her father from 1997 to 2001. Upon returning to Philadelphia, she joined Kulu Mele, where she has had the opportunity to study Afro-Cuban and West African dance with Dorothy Wilkie, Tenefig Dioubate, and Kissima Diabate. She has also studied with Renaldo Gonzalez. Schley has taught dance classes for the Jolof Empire Organization at schools throughout Philadelphia.

Payin Schley, like her twin sister Ama, started dance with her mother Carol Butcher at La Cher Tari Dance School, studying various dance disciplines like jazz, tap, ballet, and modern from 1986 to 1991. She returned to dance in 2003 when she joined Kulu Mele African American Drum and Dance Ensemble where she has had the opportunity to study Afro-Cuban and West African dance with Dorothy Wilkie, Tenefig Dioubate, and Kissima Diabate. In 2003, Schley toured with the late Baba Ishangi and the Ishangi Family Dancers in Jacksonville, Florida, Fairfax, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

For more information or booking inquiries about Kulu Mele, contact Dorothy Wilkie, Artistic Director, 257.252.6366 or kulumele@aol.com.