Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.
Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer Charles Ahovissi, ACC's dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.
In upcoming appearances he and his troupe will enact lively interpretations of African proverbs through song, music and dance. On Friday they perform during the Ethnic Holiday Festival at the Durham Museum. On Saturday they offer dance instruction at the South Omaha Library. On Monday they present the story of the Iroko tree in the Omaha Community Playhouse's Alternative Programming Series.
Alternative well fits ACC, whose programming nearly stands it alone among area arts groups. As a Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) touring artist, Ahovissi brings his cultural showcase to schools and youth serving organizations, where African studies are negligible.
"It is a very unique program," he says. "You don't see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That's why it's very unique, very special and engaging."
Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Roberta Wilhelm says, "Charles has helped our girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook. The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls 'feel' Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, create printed fabric to wear while they dance and hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment."
At the free 7:30 p.m. Playhouse show the featured Iroko dance imparts a lesson through a cautionary parable about the dangers of putting self before community and not respecting nature. In West Africa the Iroko tree is held sacred for supposed mystical powers and medicinal properties. In the dance a young woman ignores a prohibition to cut the tree and goes mad as a result. After being saved by the village's purification ceremony she vows never to violate the Iroko again.
Ahovissi says, ""There's a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming. Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music, so at the same time I'm teaching a dance I'm also teaching the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, when it comes to farming in Africa there is preparation and celebration. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit is dance movement that has a story.
"Another example is the special music and dances we do for the initiation of youth in a village. When I'm teaching kids here the initiation dance I'm also teaching this story, this culture, this way we do things."
Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch at ACC performances. The nonprofit's on quite a roll, too. In late 2012 it became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. that year and the first ever in Neb. to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It's a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC.
Ahovissi, ACC's ebullient founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Additionally, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of winning the Nebraska Governor's Arts Heritage Award.
Even Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his organization did what none of the state's larger, more established arts programs managed doing.
"I just don't know how we got here," he says. "It was surprising."
NAC director of programs Marty Skomal says, "No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC's masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see the troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and respond to it instantly. ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection."
Ahovissi appreciates the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the immersion experience he provides. He says the glowing evaluations "confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect and how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom," adding, "All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids' lives."
He says the rituals and lessons taught have deep, universal meaning.
"We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together."
In a real sense he's carrying on traditions handed down to him in Benin, where dance and drumming were part of his growing up..
"My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that."
In his early teens he joined a local arts group. "They taught me how to be more professional," he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16. "That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected."
Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi's native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi's dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became an NAC touring artist in 2001.
He conducts NAC residencies around the state.
"I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I've been to. I'm grateful for that because I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture."
He trains teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues.
His multicultural troupe present African music and dance and the stories behind these traditions. He feels American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.
"It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward."
He says as Omaha's welcomes migrant populations from around the world "there is a need for global understanding in our community. It's not just African culture – we need to be learning about all these different cultures. You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it. That's how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way."
Ahovissi's still deeply tied to Benin, so far spared from the raging Ebola epidemic. He sends money back every month to his large family living there. "I'm they're hope," he says. They're his roots and inspiration.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.