A loved and integral member of the Bay Area’s African dance community, Nimely Napla was born in Liberia in 1961 and began dancing for the Liberian National Dance Company in 1974. He became director of the company in 1980, and brought the company to the United States in 1984 to perform at the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans. He stayed in the United States to escape the political turmoil that enveloped Liberia during the 1980s and came to the Bay Area in 1995. His dance company, Nimely Pan African Dance Company, will perform at San Francisco’s City Hall as part of the Rotunda series on July 1.
Rob Taylor: What was the trek you made across country before settling in the Bay Area?
Nimely Napla: I came first to New Orleans, because of the World’s Fair, and I worked on an arts program with the New Orleans public schools. Then I moved to New York, and worked with a school program there, then I moved to Philadelphia, PA, than Columbus, OH, and then Minneapolis, and it was in Minneapolis where I first formed the Nimely Pan African Dance Company. I wanted to keep in touch with Liberia’s heritage and rich culture, and for other people to experience Liberian culture too.
RT: What brought you to the Bay Area?
NN: I had been to California before. To me, California has the heart of Africa, and the heart of the world really, because of all the different ethnicities that are found here. You see people from different cultures doing their thing here. The first Nimely Pan African Group (in Minneapolis) was an older group, but when I re-formed it, I wanted to work with young people. Now we have a younger group that’s growing into an older group.
RT: What age ranges?
NN: The youngest is five years old. You saw them when they auditioned [for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival].
RT: And the oldest?
NN: The oldest dancers are 15. The oldest drummers are from 25 to 30. And I’m the oldest of them all [smiles]. At this stage–I’ll be 50 in September, and I have a long way to go–but I’m at the age where I have to start passing it on. That’s why I train young kids about Liberian culture and dance, so one day when I’m not around, they’ll be able to share it too.
RT: It seems that a lot of your work as artistic director is about community building as much as it is about creating art. Would you say that’s accurate?
NN: Yes–on the community side of it. The way I find most of my dancers is that I reach out to parents, as well as reaching out directly to the young people. Sometimes their kids are having problems in their homes or at school. You’ve always got to encourage your child and encourage them to find what they want do. Kids love to dance. Academics always come first–but kids love to dance. So I challenge them to do both, so they understand that they have their education first, which nobody can take away, and they have their talent second, which nobody can take away. So I reach out to the kids to encourage them to do both.
When we make costumes, we do hands-on classes and work on it together. We also teach them how to fix the drum, to show them how important the drum is. When the kids first come to class, they think it’s just a piece of material to bang on. So I tell them how important the drum is, that you always have to play for a reason–you just don’t bang on the drum.
The drum is a messenger–it has a message. In Africa, we play the drum for a funeral, a wedding, a newborn baby, graduation ceremony, and harvesting. These are the reasons for playing the drum. You don’t just play drum because you want to make a noise. I teach them that the drum has feelings, and if they don’t treat the drum right, it will not sound the way they want it to sound. But if you take care of the drum and treat the drum right, it will sound just like you want it to sound.
RT: You often work with Zak and Naomi Diouf, the directors of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, one of the most established West African dance companies in the Bay Area. How long have you had that connection?
NN: Naomi is my sister, and when I first came here, I lived with her, and worked with them as a dance instructor. I am now the Assistant Artistic Director and designer for Diamano Coura. I make 95% of the costumes and props for Diamano Coura. And Zak is my brother-in-law, but I call him my father because he was the one who took care of me all these years, and I considered him my second father. My father died and now he is my permanent father. Now I call him Dad.
RT: What piece are you performing for the Rotunda Dance Series on July 1?
NN: At the Rotunda we will be doing an excerpt from Breaking of the Poro Bush, which is a graduation ceremony for young boys in a bush school that depicts the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. This dance is from the Vai and Gola ethnic groups in Liberia. The Mende tribe in Sierra Leone also has the same Poro society.
RT: For this piece, will you be using the full-body masks?
NN: Yes, we’ll use a few masks.
RT: Can you describe some of the tradition behind the use of the mask?
NN: The Poro mask represents spirits who look after the bush school and the village the school is in. The mask represents the master and the guardians of the village, who protect the village from any evil thing.
RT: Can you describe some of the tradition behind your use of the mask?
NN: We need a separate room for the person who gets into the mask, to set the mask on the person wearing it. There’s a ritual for getting into the mask. In our tradition, when you put yourself behind something you become part of the thing you are behind–you are no longer part of the human world during that performance. Only when you come out of the mask do you re-enter the human world.
RT: What else do you have coming up for the company?
NN: We are going to Washington DC for the Liberian Independence Day on July 23, to perform and to celebrate. The Liberian Embassy in Washington DC always invites us to perform and we’ve been doing it for 10 years now.
The big dream now is to find a grant or the funding to take the young people in the company to Liberia for a cultural exchange. That’s my goal before I die, so the kids I am working with here can see that what they are doing here is the same as what they are doing over there in Liberia.