Diamano Coura West African Dance Performs Rites of Passage

The Oakland dance troupe spreads the power of dances and music from Guinea, Mali, Liberia, Senegal, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast.


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Naomi Gedo Diouf uses dance to explain culture, history, and tradition.

Photo by Gregory Bartning

Can we assume that you know that, with all its challenges, our culture—or “Turtle Island” as the Hopi call it—is about as rich and multifaceted as they come? And we are all the better for it? Marvelously, some individual traditions continue to flourish, particularly those with that perilous step from childhood into adult life represented by bar mitzvahs, the quinceañera, sweet 16 parties, the Rumspringa, and sunrise ceremonies. Something about as momentous as leaving childhood behind still seems to encourage special attention, and coming-of-age ceremonies can be occasions for festivities in which girls get to finally pin up their hair or youths don adult garments for the first time. But these can also, particularly for boys, involve tests of bravery. Every year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival features examples from initiation ceremonies from around the globe.

Among the most committed Bay Area artists who make it a practice to validate the passage into adulthood are Zachariah Diouf and Naomi Gedo Diouf. More than four decades ago, he from Senegal, she from Liberia, named their Oakland ensemble Diamono Cora (“those bring the message”) West African Dance.

They have introduced dances and music from Guinea, Mali, Liberia, Senegal, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast. Often working with guests artists, they have trained generations of local dancers and musicians and exposed thousands of school children to a new world. “Our work,” Ms. Diouf (“Mama Naomi”) said, “is never meant to be just for exhibition. We want people to understand the cultures, history, and traditions of what we do. We cannot bring [our audiences] to Africa, but we can bring Africa’s artists and cultures to them.” Included might also be actors, singers, acrobats, and stilt-walkers.

Every spring, Diamano Coura offers Collage des Cultures Africaines with workshops in African drum and music with guest artists, performances, and educational programs (March 7-10) intent on showcasing the arts of the African Diaspora. In the fall (Nov. 24), the emphasis is on Diamono Cora’s wide-ranging repertoire for its 22 women dancers. The program includes folkloric dances but always also evokes an initiation dance ceremony.

“It’s important for young girls,” Ms. Diouf believes, “to have mentors, teachers, and role models, [and] to know people who have traveled so that they know what to expect in their own travels.” This year’s presentation will be newly choreographed.

Diamano Coura, Sat., Nov. 24, 8 p.m., $17-$30, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland, DiamanoCoura.org, BrownpaperTickets.com.

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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