Fua Dia Congo; Dancing Malonga Casquelourd’s Legacy, Dec 2007

By Denise Pate

December 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Not many small dance companies survive the death of their founders. Started in 1977 by the late master dancer and drummer Malonga Casquelourd, Fua Dia Congo has continued in their dedication to the preservation of Congolese culture, despite Malonga’s untimely death in 2003.

This year Fua Dia Congo (which means “Congolese Heritage”), is celebrating 30 years of dedication to the preservation, promotion, and study of traditional Central African culture. The stellar dance and music ensemble draws its repertoire from the religious, social, and military traditions of the Kongo Kingdom, which includes the modern day Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Gabon, and the Central African Republic. The company presents the region’s cultural values through performances incorporating song, music, and dance, and offers lecture-demonstrations, dance camps, guest workshops with visiting African masters, and weekly dance classes in Oakland and East Palo Alto.

Fua Dia Congo grew out of a dance class held in East Palo Alto’s Nairobi Community Center, and soon expanded its classes and rehearsals to include locations in Oakland. Malonga Casquelourd soon had his students onstage, introducing the Bay Area to traditional Congolese dance and music. The company has presented electrifying performances throughout the United States, appearing in the S.F. Ethnic Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow, and Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, and has also performed in Republic of Congo.

In the late 1970s Malonga brought his Congolese dance classes to Oakland’s Everybody’s Creative Arts Center. Those classes continue today in Oakland, held at a center named in his honor: the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. The classes continue to draw a diverse crowd of all ages and ethnicities, and are taught by Malonga’s children and other company members.

Passing on the tradition

The preservation and the passing on of tradition is the most important element of the company’s mission. Malonga Casquelourd trained two generations of dancers through his company, youth programs and community classes. This second generation of dancers works alongside the first to continue their beloved master’s legacy.

Malonga Casquelourd’s children Muisi-kongo, Kiazi, Lungusu, and Boueta all play a vital role in Fua’s classes, workshops, and performances. Muisi-kongo says that she and other members of the company “understand the weight and gravity of what it means to recognize the value of preserving the tradition of Congolese culture.”

The eldest daughter, Muisi-kongo is currently at the helm of the company as Artistic Director. Inheriting a rich legacy of dedication to the preservation of culture, Muisi-Kongo grew up watching both of her parents perform. Her mother, Dr. Faye McNair-Knox was an original member of Fua and is a noted linguist and musician. Muisi speaks of watching the rehearsals and performances at an early age, and even viewing hours and hours of videotapes of the company’s performances. She calls the company’s videotapes “some of my favorite television shows.” As a child, Muisi-kongo performed as a member of the youth company. She has been a principal dancer with the main company for over a decade. An emerging choreographer, she has received several awards, and recently collaborated with Congolese master artist Chryrsogone Diangoya. She teaches the company’s classes in addition to a Congolese dance class at Stanford University. As the company’s artistic director, Muisi-kongo works with a staff of seasoned fellow artists, many of whom were close associates and protégés of her father. Muisi-kongo’s siblings, Lungusu and Kiazi both play a vital role in the musical direction, choreography, and performances, and her youngest brother, eleven-year old Boueta, is a drummer with the group. Kiazi is currently attending graduate school out-of-state, but returns for major performances to provide overall creative guidance. Like his father, Kiazi is an accomplished musician and dancer. Lungusu works closely with her sister on the overall creative direction of the shows, assisting with choreography and rehearsals.

Fua Dia Congo’s creative management team includes several artists and elders who were trained and/or worked with Malonga for over 25 years. They provide support and guidance for the company’s artistic direction and management. Some of these professional include Regine N’dounda, Sandor Diabankouezi, Regina Calloway, Erica Simpson, and Janeen Johnson. Congolese-born master artist Matingou Raphael serves as the company’s Musical Director. A former bandleader and international performer, Matingou works with Muisi-kongo and other members of the management team to assure that concepts to be presented are in line with the cultural traditions of the Congo region.

The 30th Anniversary Concert

On Saturday, November 4, Fua Dia Congo presented their Anniversary Concert, Kongo Odyssey at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Center. The concert featured dance, drumming, and song along with archival footage, interviews, and photographs that offered reflections on the early days of the company. Almost twenty alumni members danced alongside current Fua members and youth. “In many ways it was more than just a performance,” says Muisi-kongo. “Former members who began dancing with my father in the early days of the company returned to perform with us. These dancers were like TV stars to me when I was little. The performance gave us an opportunity to acknowledge these pioneers.”

The audience was reminded throughout the concert of the monumental impact of founder Malonga Casquelourd’s work in the Bay Area dance scene. His infectious smile and explosive dancing was featured throughout the video footage and photographs that were projected on the upstage screen. Original company member Dr. Faye McNair Knox very poignantly described the excitement that she and others felt when they first began studying Congolese dance with Malonga in East Palo Alto in the 1970s. His classes, she reminded the gathered crowd, were some of the first traditional African dance classes taught in the Bay Area. For many African Americans at that time, this was their first exposure to traditional African culture. Dr. Knox shared how she and other members of the community “immersed themselves in African culture” and were trained by Malonga in classes, rehearsals, and performances.

Fua Dia Congo and the Future

Though Muisi-kongo says the company has “been able to create many miracles,” she concedes that it’s challenging maintaining a small ensemble like Fua Dia Congo with limited resources, and she acknowledges the need for dedicated fundraising and strategic planning. In the past, the company has operated with funds mainly from its performance fees. The company recently received a grant from the City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program, and is working with a development firm to identify more sources of funding to support the company’s growth.

In the coming year the company will continue their program of performances, guest workshops, and weekly dance classes, and begin to develop a season of regular touring throughout the United States. There are plans for a tour to the Republic of Congo for summer 2008. This tour will include work from the company’s repertoire in addition to a piece created through collaborations with local artists. Fua Dia Congo will also work to strength its bond with the people of the Republic of Congo, and continue to bring guest artists to the United States for workshops and performances.

Denise Pate has spent the past 25 years working in the Bay Area arts community as a dancer, teacher, arts administrator, and consultant.