I caught her by surprise, as she set up to sell tickets for A Touch Of Senegal On The Vineyard, outside of the historic Union Chapel on Martha’s Vineyard. Her, is my old high-school friend, Sheryl Piland– who now lives in LA, and who when I think of her, I can’t help but remember how the year we graduated high school, Sheryl entered and won the Miss Black Teen USA contest, and got to be crowned by, and dance with Michael Jackson on stage, on television! I was thrilled, and proud of her, like many people from our hometowns of Waterbury and Prospect, Connecticut were, but I was jealous, too. You all know how much I loved MJ, and I wanted to be the one up there dancing with him. But I wasn’t black and beautiful like Sheryl, or as confident. I always admired Sheryl for her deep intelligence, and how, even at seventeen, she seemed so self-assured. In my eyes, Sheryl was someone who knew what she wanted, what she stood for, and yet was generous and giving to her friends.
And, so as I rounded the corner of the beautiful chapel, Sheryl spotted me, did a double take, and we hugged a hug like two friends who haven’t seen each other in twenty years. I then got in line to purchase my ticket, excited for the highlight of my solo journey to Martha’s Vineyard, this matinée performance of African dance and drumming produced by the non-profit organization, Da’African Village, that Sheryl helped promote and bring to the Vineyard.
I knew that I would be experiencing both dance, performed by African ballet ensemble, Les Enfants Du Soleil, and drumming, but didn’t know much about Sheryl’s involvement with this group, or much about the performance presenter, Da’African Village, and it’s Founder/President, Serigne “Mara” Diakhate.
As I entered the chapel, I was taken by both it’s simplicity, and it’s grandeur. The open space in-the-round, had rows of benches strung around three sides of its circle, and a small stage set against one wall. When you looked upward, you spotted a balcony, and above that, a beautiful cupola, painted a dreamy, mint green, with rows of triangular windows, that allowed the light to pour into the space. Wagon-wheel cross beams, both structural and a thing of beauty, were anchored by a delicate, many-armed brass chandelier in their center.
As the audience of families with young children, middle-aged adults, and elder couples found their seats, Mara, a tall figure, dressed in all white, gave a welcoming introduction. He briefly spoke about the mission of Da’African Village, to promote a cultural and educational exchange between Africa and the United States. The Village aims to “build bridges” and break down some of the stereotypes that Americans may have about Africa and African people, as well as ones that African people may have about America and Americans. At this performance, the arts were being used both as art unto itself, as well as an opportunity to educate the audience on these points.
As Mara completed his introduction, I heard an intense drum roll from behind the stage, which at first listen I thought was a recording. I didn’t think a live drum could sound like that. When the drummers appeared a moment later from the side of the stage, dressed in brightly colored red, yellow and green silky outfits and tall caps adorned with feathers, not unlike a college drum major’s hat, I knew we were in for something special. Solid beats and rhythms, progressed with an intensity matched only by the enthusiasm of each of the four drummers who beckoned the audience to clap, to get excited along with them. Don’t just sit there, they seemed to be saying. Feel the joy! Clap. Get into it. Feel the beat along with us.
The drummers were joined soon after by the dance ensemble–five women and five men, who took turns performing–first the group of women–who entered in a line across the open expanse of wood flooring, at times moving in unison, at others in solo stints, their dance as strong and hard-hitting as their drum accompaniment, folding into movements that fluttered and soared, their grace accentuated in some of the sets by flowing, silk gowns.
Interspersed between segments of the performance, Mara talked to the audience about the significance of a particular dance, and some of the cultural rituals of Senegal and Gambia. Just before the male dancers performed their first dance, Mara talked about “flying” movements, which signified joy, and as the men danced, my breath was taken away by the height at which they leaped and kicked, their faces exhibiting the sheer joy of which Mara spoke.
Later in the performance, I listened intently as Mara spoke of the male courting ritual, and how when a young man, after going through a circumcision ritual, is brought out into the village and presented among the young woman of the village. Once he spots a woman that he likes, he must first tell his mother, who then tells the father. Afterward, the mother visits with the family of the young woman, and talks with her mother, and checks out the girl, with the test of the four qualities she is looking for. As Mara explained it, the four qualities the mother is looking for are: the way the woman carries herself, the way she looks–not directly at the elders, out of respect; the way she dresses; and the way she talks–listening more than talking earns more points. Then the mother reports back to the man’s father, in order to make a decision or affirmation about whether this woman and her family is a good match for their son.
The narrative dance played out before our eyes, as we watched the young male dancer, dressed in all red, get cajoled by his male peers, as they outlined the curves of a woman’s form with the wave of their hands, and then faded into the background as the women appeared and danced circles around the man. It felt as if we are at a competition, each woman moving, smiling, vying for his attention, hoping to be “the one.”
As we were taken higher right up to the end of the performance with each royal drum beat, each dancer’s intentioned stomp and outstretched arms, the audience was invited out onto the floor to dance with the ensemble. I was prodded by my seat neighbor, a kind, elder gentleman to join in, and had to go for it. For him, for my friend Sheryl, and because I couldn’t resist the contagious, positive vibrations of the entire room.
After the performance, Sheryl generously invited me to go eat with her and the performers at “the corner cottage” as she called it. I gladly agreed and we walked half a block to the cottage, which I found out later from Sheryl’s mother who was there at the performance and dinner, was a community space started decades ago by a group of Black sorority women known as The Cottagers, who vacationed in the Oak Bluffs town of Martha’s Vineyard. I knew that Martha’s Vineyard had a history of well-to-do Black people who made the Vineyard their summer vacation spot, but didn’t know much more. A search on-line dug up this article from the Washington Post, Oak Bluffs, Mass, Is Where The Black Elite Is At Home In The Summer. The article even mentions The Cottagers, who from the framed newspaper clips, letters and other mementos that I had a chance to briefly glimpse at in the dining room after dinner that night, I sensed had a deep history on the island.
Of course, I’m very interested now to learn more and get into that history, which I’m sure could be an entire writing of its own. (Readers, please, if you have stories of your families’ relationships with Martha’s Vineyard, or knowledge of the history, please get in touch, and share!)
I hung out with Sheryl in the linoleum floored kitchen, its bright florescent lights shining on white painted cupboards labeled with their belongings, making for easy use for community members. Sheryl, who had stayed up the night before until 3:00 a.m. cooking two humongous pots of Senegalese style fish and shrimp stew, gave us a shared task to complete the meal for the hungry dancers and drummers: make a pot of boiled rice.
Both of us laughed when Sheryl asked me if I was good at making rice, and I responded, “No, I only know how to make it with the rice cooker. It always comes out bad when I make it without it.” Sheryl replied, “Me too!” yet forged ahead with measuring out water and rice. Immediately losing track of our water/rice ratio, we watched the pot and fretted about our task.
“We need to get the rice right. Rice is important to Senegalese people,” Sheryl said, as she stirred the pot.
As we worried about how it would turn out, some of the dancers and drummers came into the kitchen asking when dinner would be ready, and at one point, when they smelled something burning–which turned out to be the bottom of pot of rice, they started to give us some instruction.
“Why are you adding water?” asked Samba, a tall, lanky drummer. “Don’t stir it, just put it on low, low, low. Cover it, and just wait.”
While the pot was a bit of a fail with a smoky, burnt taste when you got to the rice at the bottom, Sheryl’s tangy, lemony seafood stews were delicious–both refreshing and comforting.
While I ate, and Sheryl abstained until after sundown since she was fasting in honor of Ramadan, as were some of the dancers and drummers, I asked Sheryl how she became involved with Da’African Village.
“It began after I met Mara and we started talking about our backgrounds–me being African American, or Black, or whatever they are calling us these days, and Mara being African, from Senegal.” She continued, “When we began sharing stories of families coming over on trade ships, we saw there were some parallels, which seemed to surprise Mara…and, I was, like, well, of course…that’s how we got here.”
“It’s important to me that we learn our history and have these cultural exchanges so that we know where we came from, and make connections between people in Africa and people in the United States. We all can be enriched by getting to know each other’s stories. I knew when I saw the dancers, that I had to bring this to the Vineyard, that this would be a good exchange.”
I thought to myself how cool is this, that Sheryl has had this vision of something that is important to her, and is now involved doing hands-on work with Da’African Village. Still humble, despite her accomplishments, I learned later by visiting their website, that she is actually the Executive Director of the organization. Another humble move of the night: Determined to make right with the rice, Sheryl cooked up another smaller batch of it, and when it came out beautifully, she told everyone I had made it.
Da’African Village blew me away with the amount of programming they are doing to serve their mission of building bridges between Africa and the U.S. They provide travel and tourism group tours to Senegal and Gambia, which Mara told me is popular with college students who want to visit and meet with their Senegalese and Gambian peers. They offer substantial volunteer opportunities in youth work, medicine, education and more; as well as youth development, trade, and arts and cultural performances and workshops. Mara is also the author of Talking Wolof, a basic guide to speaking the language of West Africa/Senegal.
I wished I could have had more time to hear more about Da’African Village through Sheryl and Mara, and to catch up with Sheryl, who after dinner had to head back for the evening performance of Les Enfants Du Soleil, but I had to walk to the town pier to catch my ferry back home.
I will long remember my day on Sheryl’s “magical island” as she called it earlier that evening, and the performance, and the work of Da’African Village. My daughter Darla, ever since she was very young, said she wanted to travel to Africa, not sure which country, but just knowing she wanted to go there for some reason. Perhaps, with the affordability of Da’African Villages tour packages, and the inspiration provided for a visit from Sheryl, Mara and the beautiful artists–the dancers and drummers I saw perform that day, Darla’s old dream, and my new one, may become a reality.
Visit: www.daafricanvillage.com to learn more about this amazing organization’s work. Perhaps you’ll want to sign up for a tour, too.