Sheffield — More than 60 fourth graders graced the stage Tuesday morning (March 7), at the Thomas A. Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield, in a celebration of life that articulated a timeless lesson: when we share the wealth, no one is poor — everyone has enough. This exploration, using African dance and drumming as a vehicle to explore the concepts of folklore and storytelling, came via a talented group of educators from Berkshire Pulse, an organization dedicated to building and strengthening community life through diverse and accessible programming. Intermittent bursts of rousing clapping and drumbeats aside, the positive results were palpable.
Cultural Traditions: The Music and Dances of Africa was the title of the month-long residency program for 4th grade students that promoted knowledge and understanding of the context of the arts in history. Instructors Aimee Gelinas, World Music Program Director at Pulse and guest teaching artist Pamela Badila, of Diata Diata International Folkloric Theater, were at the helm of the successful program. Gelinas took the stage first, surrounded by 19 drums arranged in a semi-circle — each differing slightly from the next in height, design and decoration — symbolic of the coming together that was the thread of the residency. She pointed to two types of drums with origins in West Africa: the djembe, a skin-covered goblet shaped drum literally meaning “to come together in peace,” and the doun-doun, or bass drum, both played with the hands. Four different classes of 4th graders and their teachers — including Tom Masters who is a faculty member at Pulse — took the stage in turns to showcase their original drum beats. Gelinas, who has studied extensively throughout the Caribbean, Cuba, Mexico and Africa, was thankful for the chance to “spread [her] love of drumming and cultures” with the students from both Undermountain Elementary and New Marlborough Central schools. She noted that the students had prepared intermediate drumming material in about two weeks. She then went on to reveal the “secret” each group had used to translate the rhythms of Guinea and the Congo into their drum beats: short phrases that mirror the rhythm.
“I’m cleaning the street, I’m cleaning the street” were the words that set the beat for one group, while another group’s rhythm was reflected in the phrases, “I have a dog, I have a horse, I have a rat.” Short, staccato bursts from the student musicians were met with rousing clapping as an introduction to the rhythms from Congo, which heavily influenced the music of the Caribbean, erupted from stage. Gelinas explained that while the music was written to honor all the different villages in the Congo, the students’ aim was clear: “We will honor Great Barrington, Sheffield, New Marlborough — all of our villages,” said Gelinas.
These in-school programs would not be possible without the creativity and dedication of “educators who help translate what is in my head into reality” Pulse Founder Bettina Montano said, noting the “constant evolution of what’s being offered and shared” with the community. Elementary principal, Mary Truro, remarked that “[the Pulse staff are] so outstanding at what they do — their enthusiasm is contagious.” Truro, in her first year at UME, added, “I love the multicultural aspect of the program and the kids had a ball.” Kim Waterman, who has been with Pulse since its inception, as both the World Music and Dance Program Director as well as the In-School Program Coordinator, announced that the programming was made possible by generous grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Cultural Investment Portfolio and local cultural council funding from Alford, Egremont, New Marlborough, Monterey, Sheffield and Mt. Washington.
Pamela Badila took the stage next, dressed in traditional Congolese garb, to narrate the story of “Akimba and the Magic Cow,” a story that reflects her belief in “restorative justice.” The folktale, corresponding to universal events, was adapted for contemporary life and allowed for collaboration among the four classes who combined to tell the same story — after preparing for the assembly separately — in a gesture largely symbolic of the importance of working together for the greater good. Badila began her narrative, noting “very, very long ago this story began.” She ultimately told the tale of Akimba, the leader of a village of compassionate and kind people who “prosper because its inhabitants cooperate” and Boumba, a typical opportunist.
After being threatened with the challenges of global warming — the river running dry, and the crops yielding almost nothing — Akimba’s villagers are forced to abandon their homelands and navigate a path that leads them to consult a village of elders who are struggling. A cow who spits gold coins, a sheep who spits silver, and several vacations and favors later, both Akimba and Boumba have made mistakes: the first in being greedy for material wealth, and the second in taking what’s not his. But here is where the story gets an unconventional twist. The original story “ended very differently” Badila told the audience. There was a magic stick, which would have been used to beat some sense into both Akimba and Boumba. The 4th graders, in a nod to the aforementioned “restorative justice,” crafted an alternate ending: Akimba kept the cow, Boumba kept the sheep, and everyone had enough to live well and go on vacation.
The beauty of this story is that is allows us to “acknowledge error” said Badila who went on to add, “it is a way of saying we can have a sense of reconciliation by looking out for each other.” It is in this vein that the collaboration on stage unfolded to present an “evolved lesson — not just entertainment, but teaching.” For Ngounga Badila, part of the percussion ensemble of his family’s Diata Diata International Folkloric Theater, his experience with the students over the course of the residency “shows what they already think — the importance of things being equal and fair.” This type of work, according to Montano, “impedes upon the seeds of racism” by celebrating what is different about all of us — our food, our clothing, our music, our language –while celebrating the connectivity of our shared human heritage.
SBRSD Superintendent David Hastings applauded the efforts of Berkshire Pulse, noting their devotion to powerful work that is “so important in a school — in a community — that is so lacking in diversity.” He went on to sing the praises of “Bettina and her team [who are] pros every year — the program has reached a cruising altitude and it keeps getting better and better.” Hastings spoke from personal experience to the importance of a strong school community, reflecting on his return to the Berkshires after a career in the Army. “My three kids experienced culture shock,” he recalls, noting the lack of diversity in the schools. “Suddenly, they were the only African Americans,” something they had not experienced while living in more diverse locales.
The powerful collaboration that unfolded on an otherwise dreary morning in Sheffield was indeed a “celebration of life.” It is an old adage, that the children will lead us all out of ignorance, into the light. For Pamela Badila, the work she does with students makes the struggle relevant; it “recaptures forbidden culture [and] creates traditions” both of which, when sustained, help us all to keep a finger on the proverbial pulse of the human experience.