With the echo of the drums behind them and the audience laid out before them, dancers of the African Diaspora in our city leap and twist. Their movements are like water, their footwork immaculate, and their clothing burns as brightly as the beat. Sweat drips from the brows of the men drumming as they keep the pace, beating the sabar and djembe drums as they stand.
Founded in 2008, Djapo Cultural Arts Institute is quickly becoming known for its artistic performances through West African music and dance. With live drumming and colorful traditional costuming, Djapo is becoming known for its high-energy performances.
Education through Art and Vice Versa
The charitable organization aims to bring and preserve African traditions in music and dance to the African Diaspora. The name "Djapo" comes from the Wolof language, a Niger-Congo language spoken mainly in Senegal; it means “come together.” In this way, Djapo has partnered with its community members and larger organizations to put on programming. You may have seen their work at Juneteenth, Station Hope, Dance Cleveland, the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival with Inlet Dance Theater, Erie Blues and Jazz Festival, or Playhouse Square.
Each winter, Executive Artistic Director Talise Campbell travels to West Africa for research and information to incorporate into classes, which are open to all ages and experience levels. Described as “incorporating ‘the arts’ into the educational curriculum,” classes don’t just teach West African dances or West African traditions separately.
Campbell said, “In all cultures, our first learning occurs through song, art and dance. We learn to sing the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors. As children grow older, we veer away from this method of teaching and understanding. At Djapo, we continue to incorporate this earlier method of educational delivery by making sure we implement the arts while teaching math, history, science, geography and language.”
The history of drumming and West African traditions started long ago (even before the written language) — though the organization is only 14 years old. When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, many times they were stripped of their traditions, figuratively and literally. Brought naked or nearly naked, they were forced into labor and banned from practicing their dances and languages.
After generations of this, the old ways were mostly lost to time. Enslaved Africans became Black Americans. As the decades passed, Black Americans headed north to places like Cleveland in search of freedom, better jobs, and a better life. Work like Djapo’s was precious but rare, and many Black Americans did not feel welcome in African spaces.
Campbell strives to make Djapo a welcoming space for all who seek to learn — an organization to bring people together. She spends school years as an assistant professor of dance and Africana studies at Oberlin College. And summers mean constant rehearsal, setting up and preparing for the events of the season. She first started teaching dance at 16 years old while attending Cleveland School of the Arts, so Campbell has decades of experience.
Take a class, visit their page on Instagram, or view a performance. Scholarships and sliding scale prices dependent on income are available as well so no one will be turned away from a class due to inability to pay.