beginning (circle) kokou katamani
When I first formed my company, Ase Dance Theatre Collective, Kokou Katamani taught us a song. I’ll never forget that he came all the way from California just to perform in one of my pieces. I was a student at The Ailey School then and it was my first time living away from home. Colette Eloi, Kimberly Anderson and Sekou Alaje came as well. For folks to roll all the way out to the East Coast just to get down with what I was making, especially with their own money etc. is far deeper than an honor. It’s true love and family in a way that most never get to experience and if they do, may not appreciate.
The song went “Ayelo yeku daba…”. To this day, it is the only continental African song that has ever been set on the company. We have yet to perform it.
Although Kokou taught us the words and explained it’s meaning, the song became blurry with time and circumstance. Kokou and I lost touch. The company’s cast of characters changed. Life just kept on growing. From the little I could remember of Kokou’s lesson, “Ayelo yeku daba…” was a song for an Ewe rhythm and dance called Gadzo. At the time of his visit to NYC in 2001, I was working on a piece called “Neg Mawon”. Kokou saw similarities between the “Mayi” section of “Neg Mawon” and Gadzo. This was the first time I’d heard any whisperings of the direct links between the Ewe culture of West Africa and Afro-Haitian folkore.
The reason why I tell this story is the same reason why Kokou chose to teach us this particular song. He wanted us to know that there were tangible and clear roots to the connections we were making in our work, that although our histories often appear scattered and fragmented, they are intricate and far from non-existencial.
Many years past before I thought about the song again. My students kept asking me if I had been to Africa and after awhile it just sounded silly to me that I hadn’t been. Around that same time, I started dreaming about the song, but I couldn’t remember what it meant. I tried to find Kokou but had no luck. I tried to set it on my company, but couldn’t because I didn’t know enough about the cultural context to build it’s relationship to “Mayi”. I went to the Ewe folks in Brooklyn, but no one could translate it for me. Etc, etc. etc. and in the middle I received a Jerome Foundation grant “… to study the Dahomean roots of Afro-Haitian folkore with the Ewe people of Ghana.” because “I needed to find out the meaning of a song.” There’s more to it than that, but basically… that’s what I was trying to do.
After receiving the grant I came home to San Francisco. I went to go visit Mr. C.K. Ladzekpo (a Bay Area African dance pioneer and expert on Ewe music and dance). I wanted to consult an elder before my trip and see if he knew the meaning of the Gadzo song Kokou taught us seven years before. When I sat down with him, I told him of my search for his nephew Kokou, how the song was coming in my dreams and how I received the grant because I wrote about how all these things were tormenting me. He laughed and said,” Kokou is fine. He comes to rehearsal every week.”
After we finished dinner and made arrangements for me to come sit in on rehearsals, I asked him if he knew what the song meant. He said, “It’s in old Ewe language. That’s why the Ewe’s you were asking couldn’t translate it for you. It means when you fall down, get up. A couple of days later Kokou and I saw each other at Mr. Baba C.K.’s rehearsal for the first time in seven years.