An Interview with Joti and Bongo: Painting Cultures and Styles

By In Dance

October 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The upcoming performance, Lanyee, is a ground-breaking spin on a traditional form. This three-show performance features Bongo Sidibe, and Duniya Dance and Drum Company in collaboration with the African Advocacy Network.

Bringing together some of West Africa’s acclaimed dancers and musicians, their native Guinean dance and music brings high energy an original narrative story. Lanyee follows the story of a man named Mamadou, who leaves his disharmonious village in a quest for peace. He encounters many obstacles along the way, including a skirmish with immigration police. Mamadou finally reaches a land of musicians and dancers, and brings them back to his village, showing his king and fellow countrymen how art has the ability to bring people of different ethnicities and classes together.

Dancers’ Group staff got the inside scoop from Joti Singh, choreographer and artistic director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company, about this upcoming performance.

What can the audience expect to experience?

JS: This will be a very high energy show bringing together a lot of talented artists from Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, the Bay Area and L.A. We’re using traditional elements from Guinean ballets–which means including a dance, drama, and music to tell a story–it has nothing to do with western ballet (which I think confuses some people). Plus we’re bringing in our own style and thematic elements as well.

There is a narrative through line in this show. Where did this story come from?

JS: My husband Bongo Sidibe came up with the story. The original name of the djembe drum is djembe bara, which means unity drum. From the beginning of its existence this instrument has brought people together. It’s not hard to see, no matter where you live, examples of violence and conflict. Bongo is from Guinea, where there are a lot of tensions between different ethnic groups and the government makes policy choices without considering the people’s best interests. So the story combines real life experience with some of the fantasy involved in telling a story in a ballet. He has a lot of creativity swirling around in his head, and I think there are miles and miles of stories in there.

Can you talk about working with your husband on this project. Has it caused any strain in your relationship?

JS: [Laughs] We work together a lot. It helps that his specialty is the music and mine is the dance, so that although we interact, we’re each working on something independently as well. It actually makes things so much easier that, for example, if I have a question about how a certain rhythm goes or about a specific composition I want to dance to, I can just ask him whenever I want. Of course we don’t always agree about how to do something but when I’m working within the Guinea tradition, which is part of who Bongo is, I will defer to him about a lot of things because he knows way more than I do. If it’s Indian stuff, it’s the opposite. We both have a lot of respect for each other’s skills and opinions, and I think with each project we learn how to work together even more productively.

There are a lot of collaborating variables to this project. Who are all the players?

JS: Everybody’s so busy doing a million different things, I think the main challenge is just coordinating schedules. We’re working with a group from L.A. Balandugu Kan, directed by Kara Mack and Kahlil Cummings. My husband met them years ago in Guinea and we’ve known them for a while. When they came up to SF for the first rehearsals, it was like magic. When you’re dancing to live music, your energy level correlates directly to the quality of the music, and these guys together are like fire. I felt so inspired by that, and as Kara and I were choreographing, I felt creative and energized. Sometimes, of course, dancing for a living makes dance feel like work–because it is!–but rehearsing for these shows, there’s been so much understanding of why we’re doing this and I feel like we all invigorate each other because we’re so passionate about what we’re doing and we all love working together.

Are there been any cultural styles being fused here?

JS: Actually it’s all Guinean dance and music. There are people from other places who have specific parts in the show but overall the performance is traditional Guinean dances and music.

Projections for the future after this performance? More collaboration?

JS: Yes, most definitely. I like to see all these different people come together to accomplish a common goal. I’ve seen how dedicated the Duniya dancers are. Our goal is to produce an annual performance, so we really hope to do this again with a lot of the same artists.

Performance info:
Fri-Sat, Sep 30-Oct 1, 8pm; Sun, Oct 2, 6pm
Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th Street, SF

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of In Dance.

In Dance is a publication of Dancers' Group.