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Giwayen Mata founder Omelika Kuumba reflects on 25 years of drum and dance

Giwayen Mata founder Omelika Kuumba reflects on 25 years of drum and dance

The pedestrian crosswalk at East Level Road and Dorsey Avenue is clearly marked. Two and a half years ago, Omelika Kuumba stepped contained in the painted strains on the East Level intersection, following stop sign rules. In a microsecond, she was flat on the pavement, waves of ache capturing via her left leg.

The lady driving the automotive that hit her stopped, received out and stated, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t imply to harm you. I didn’t see you.”

Kuumba replied, “You didn’t see me?” But she thought, “I’m five-foot-six, and it’s 12 o’clock within the afternoon; how might you not see me?”

An off-duty police supply occurred to be close by, and he sat by her while she waited for an ambulance. He calmed her and uttered a number of jokes so that she might snigger by way of the ache. 

She has since translated that have into her life. “What number of occasions have I been in that state of affairs the place I was considering that I was being my most authentic self and then still wasn’t seen or was misinterpreted? You may wind up getting harm, despite the fact that that wasn’t the intention of the individual or state of affairs.”

The police officer’s look after her in that crisis taught her something about herself as properly. During life’s troublesome or painful moments, she needed to have joy. 

The accident led to Kuumba’s retirement final summer time from her position as inventive director of Giwayen Mata, the “all-sistah” African dance and drumming group that Kuumba led for 25 years. The incident additionally gave her readability on two strands which have run by means of her life and time with Giwayen Mata. 

Kuumba’s accident in East Point prompted her to assess her life. (Photograph by Kevin Parker)

First was the significance of “being seen” and all that encompasses — to be authentic, to be understood and to be not solely visible but in addition recognized for who she was and what she has achieved. With Kuumba as its leader, Giwayen Mata proved that ladies can play African drums with excellence and distinction and disproved doubts that ladies might work collectively as a unified group. By means of Kuumba’s imaginative and prescient, and despite challenges, the organization helped weave Atlanta’s African dance and drumming scene into the nationwide conversation about African culture by way of DanceAfrica USA celebrations.

The second strand, pleasure, was especially palpable on a heat evening final July at Morehouse School’s Ray Charles Performing Arts Middle, when Giwayen Mata celebrated its 25th anniversary and Kuumba’s passage into a brand new position as inventive director emerita. To the standard packed live performance hall, one work after one other celebrated the company’s history.

At one unforgettable moment, a line of feminine dancers and musicians moved ahead toward the viewers, their power at full throttle. They appeared to develop larger than life, vivifying the air with colors, tones and polyrhythms that appeared to swirl collectively to an intoxicating effect.

It’s a well known feeling that African drumming can incite, particularly for many who have studied the normal West African dances. The rhythms create a sort of “sweetness” that heightens the senses and fills the brain. It could actually encourage individuals to really feel a way of delight in their identities, their communities and their ancestral heritage. It urges individuals to maneuver. It’s a deep and abiding pleasure — a sweetness that has helped maintain Giwayen Mata in its long and persevering with lifespan. 

It’s a sweetness that’s felt when Kuumba has a djembe drum singing beneath her palms. She subtly sways her hips and shoulders, smiling, encouraging — a distinct voice woven in together with her fellow drummers’ percussive strains. The drumming is propulsive and hypnotic, echoing a heartbeat, the wind or the ocean’s ebb and movement.

It all seems a part of a continuum of rises and falls, of studying, working towards and educating and pushing herself to be the most effective, and galvanizing others to do the identical. Such joy is a type of intangibles that may easily be lost to history if not seen, acknowledged and understood. 

“She is principled, polite; as lovely as she is outdoors, that’s how lovely she was inside,” stated Osunlade Fatunmise, a longtime inventive associate and instructor to Kuumba. “She tried to treat everybody as pretty as she might, typically sacrificing herself. She radiates love. That’s who she is. She was delivered to the Earth to deliver pleasure.”


Omelika Kuumba grew up in Brooklyn in the course of the 1960s and ’70s, her lineage among students and leaders in schooling. She is fast to honor her forebears. Her mother is an educator. Her grandfather earned a doctorate from Yale University and went on to found the philosophy department at Morgan State University before serving as president of Storer School in West Virginia. Kuumba’s great-grandfather graduated from Howard College and was an lawyer in the course of the pre-Civil Rights era. Kuumba can also be pleased with her Cherokee ancestry. 

Omelika Kuumba (background, middle) leads Giwayen Mata.

Kuumba grew up understanding the richness of African and African American tradition and studied West African rhythms by means of dances. In 1977, she saw the first DanceAfrica pageant at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like many people, she was struck by pageant founder Baba Chuck Davis’ larger-than-life presence and his booming message of “peace, love, and respect for everyone.” 

A third-generation Spelman lady, Kuumba accomplished a degree in philosophy with the category of 1981 and now teaches at Spelman and leads the Sisters Chapel African Dance and Drum Ministry.

Her skilled dance profession began with an African dance workshop taught by Wendy Lovelace beneath the DanceAfrica banner. Baba Chuck Davis was one of many academics, and Kuumba was impressed with the enjoyment he delivered to educating and the best way he commanded respect and impressed individuals to do their greatest.

4 weeks into the session, Kuumba was invited to hitch the dance company Faiza! Within two years, Osunlade Fatunmise, then director of Barefoot Ballet Youngsters’s Dance Ensemble, asked Kuumba to serve as the group’s assistant inventive director.

“What I noticed is consistency,” Fatunmise stated. “Omelika is genuine, loyal, and she or he follows by way of. She’s one of the hardest-working individuals I do know. It doesn’t matter what, she exhibits up.” 

On the time, the group’s African drummers — all male — have been in larger demand because of the forming of several African dance teams: Uhuru Dancers, Atlanta Dance Connection and Barefoot Ballet Youngsters’s Dance Ensemble. Barefoot Ballet had an grownup offshoot, referred to as Manya (now Manga African Dance, Inc., cofounded and directed by Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt).

“We have been at some extent the place the male drummers have been flaky,” stated Fatunmise. “They typically confirmed up late, or under no circumstances.” 

Kuumba remembers conducting a rehearsal with out an accompanist in an elementary faculty classroom. She was beating out rhythms on the top of a child-size picket closet when the drummer, Baba Atu Murray, entered the room, saw Kuumba and handed her his drum. 


The handoff captured the power of the moment. Fatunmise, Afegbua-Sabbatt and a gaggle of girls decided they might study to play drums so they might accompany each other’s courses and rehearsals. Kuumba joined them in learning conventional African rhythms, they usually held drum periods at Piedmont and West Finish parks.

Omelika Kuumba, fifth from left, with the artists of Giwayen Mata (Photograph by Steve Adigun)

Phrase of the all-female drumming ensemble obtained out, and the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam mosque invited them to play for a ladies’s style present, recognition that led to their opening for Sisters of the Calabash at Spelman. These successes impressed them to type a company. They referred to as themselves Giwayen Mata, a Hausa term which means “Elephant Ladies,” which is a title given to ladies who’re leaders of girls’s organizations.

Kuumba had organized the primary exhibits, and she or he felt snug taking the position of inventive director.

“Once we met, she wasn’t shy, however she wasn’t an extrovert,” Fatunmise stated of Kuumba’s leadership. “I noticed her grow as she opened extra to the calling of this art type. She turned increasingly more that spirit.”

The ladies performed from their hearts however met intense criticism from people who believed ladies shouldn’t play African drums, especially the sacred djembe, which was historically performed solely by ordained male clergymen.

“We might have been frightened away,” stated Kuumba. As an alternative, they sought solutions from native African academics.

Traditionally, the African academics stated, it was believed that ladies created the sacred rhythms however most popular to bop them and let the lads drum them. A instructor defined that the vibrations might cause inner damage, so drummers must use practiced method, together with proper respiration and hydration.

The ladies studied diligently. They researched each dance and track rigorously to current it in a cultural context so audiences might understand and relate to its which means. 

Kuumba soon discovered that she would have to turn her focus from dancing to steer drumming. Somebody needed to know the choreography, the place the percussion breaks have been and find out how to accompany the dancers. 

“Omelika made it her enterprise to study every drum part, every dance half, the songs that come along with it, the ethnic group and region of the place it originates,” wrote company cofounder Sarahn Henderson. 

The pairing of efficiency with scholarship — and Kuumba’s passionate method of sharing that information with audiences — has distinguished Giwayen Mata among groups presenting dance of the African diaspora, stated Collette Hopkins, former director of schooling of the National Black Arts Pageant. “The educating half, the scholarship,” stated Hopkins, “has been as crucial to their success as the precise performance.” 

As a result of passion and pleasure are integral to Kuumba’s scholarship, and the best way she presents the work to an viewers, it modifications the best way individuals relate to the performers. “This is not her work,” stated Hopkins. “This is her joy.”

Naysayers fell by the wayside as Giwayen Mata’s fame grew, especially after the troupe carried out in the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. Kuumba remembers enjoying works by percussionists Mickey Hart and Babatunde Olatunji atop the Green Tower, one in every of five towers crammed and surrounded by dancers and drummers during opening ceremonies within the Olympic Stadium. It was a career highlight, Kuumba stated, to be on a world stage.


Through the years, Kuumba helped to develop a company culture that embraced and inspired ladies, though she typically had to sacrifice her personal wants and wishes for the widespread good. Until 2010, the corporate self-produced its performances. As inventive director, Kuumba typically put the wants of her firm members forward of her own, especially where pay and time with family outdoors of the studio have been concerned. 

More than 80 ladies have been members of Giwayen Mata during Kuumba’s tenure as inventive director. 

This fashion of drumming was a strictly male endeavor earlier than Giwayen Mata. (Photograph courtesy of Giwayen Mata)

“Crises come up, babies are born and other people come via,” Kuumba stated. If a mother needed to take time away from the company, say, to help a toddler overcome difficulties with schoolwork, the group supported the mom’s efforts and then welcomed her when she returned. As a platform for inventive collaboration and expression, Kuumba stated, Giwayen Mata provides ladies a “sense of belonging, a way of empowerment and a way of being heard.”

The women have come from totally different backgrounds, spiritual and otherwise. For different values to coexist, Kuumba emphasised commonalities. “We’ve got a religious connection, recognizing that we must be good to at least one another,” Kuumba stated. “We should always attempt to do what we will to preserve our surroundings, and to reside in as a lot harmony as attainable.”

As performing artists, the sisters rigorously think about the impression of their actions. “Fortunately, there’s joy and love amongst us,” Kuumba stated. “So the enjoyable and the great power that folks really feel once we’re performing — it’s real power that’s radiating, and other people decide up on that.”

Baba Chuck Davis (now deceased) picked up on their power when he visited a rehearsal in 2000. The group’s shared sense of unity and respect caught his consideration, he later wrote in an e mail. “There was absolutely no cat-fighting and no egomaniacs on board,” wrote Davis. “These ladies knew exactly what they have been doing and have been into their music for the lengthy haul. Sister Omelika was respected, and thus the repertoire might develop by leaps and bounds.”


In 2008, Davis invited Giwayen Mata to perform at DanceAfrica in Brooklyn. An area newspaper profiled Kuumba’s homecoming, and the viewers response was overwhelming.

Giwayen Mata additionally performed at DanceAfrica in Chicago and Dallas that yr, with subsequent tours to Dallas in 2009 and 2011 and Denver in 2012. In 2013, Giwayen Mata once more represented Atlanta as a featured company at DanceAfrica in Brooklyn. It was the same yr, Giwayen Mata’s 20th-anniversary yr, that Kuumba realized a vision she’d lengthy had — to deliver together as many Atlanta-based African dance corporations as she might with African dance corporations beneath Baba Chuck Davis’ leadership in a DanceAfrica Atlanta pageant. The pageant pulled the group together and helped weave Giwayen Mata extra tightly into the national African dance dialog. 

In 2014, the company created and produced This Mother’s Daughter, a life-affirming story of a younger lady’s journey to seek out healing and a supportive group by means of her cultural roots. 

The next yr, Salute to Men addressed the struggles of African American males, casting mild on pressing issues of racial profiling, gang violence and police brutality. The production included information clips of repeated police shootings, each time with no indictment, and the true story of a middle-school-aged boy, forbidden to play with water weapons for worry somebody may mistake the intent and put his life in danger. It was maybe Giwayen Mata’s most hard-hitting manufacturing.

“People who stated anything about it appreciated the truth that we have been unedited, in a sense,” Kuumba stated. “As Africans in America, we’ve been preventing for our lives since we have been enslaved. Some of us have been here before the Mayflower, but we’ve been preventing to survive. We have been getting shot down every week, and we’re still getting shot down. The piece gave individuals a needed launch from the ache of all of it. Because now any person was speaking about it in a approach that they might expertise it and nonetheless have some inventive aid within the midst of it.”

Regardless of these troublesome moments, there have been candy ones — including numerous awards and civic honors. She proudly recollects drumming at Morehouse School’s commencement ceremony in 2013 when President Obama delivered the commencement handle. And Kuumba fondly remembers holding an infant grandchild in her lap as she attended an award ceremony on the State Capitol to receive the 2016 Secretary of State Excellent Citizen Award. 

On December 5, 2016, Kuumba was hit by the automotive in East Point. Two weeks later, with 4 broken bones in her left foot and broken ligaments in her knee, Kuumba played 15 Black Nativity exhibits at the Southwest Arts Middle propped up on crutches, earlier than present process surgery in January. Docs put in metallic plates and screws, which they eliminated in a second surgery six months later.

The experience had made an impression. “When your life is spared, it causes you to actually see what’s essential and the way you choose to proceed,” Kuumba stated. She felt she was given a second probability, and she or he needed to make one of the best of that blessing. “I needed to proceed to develop, and the corporate needed to develop in ways in which I won’t have been capable of give them.”

Kuumba made the choice to retire during Giwayen Mata’s 24th summer time. “But,” she stated, “then the spirits stated, ‘No, you’re not, not at 24 years. You prepare to do that 25th season, and you will lead Giwayen Mata with grace and dignity.’ And that was what I did.”

Giwayen Mata has cast a robust presence in Atlanta in its 25-year history. (Photograph courtesy of Giwayen Mata)

Kuumba has founded her own enterprise, which she has named Sistah with a Nia, LLC. The company’s acronym is SWAN, and it supplies a platform for Kuumba to perform, choreograph, train, organize music and pursue different ways of bringing creativity into individuals’s lives. 

She’s using her newfound freedom to spend time with family and work with artists she has long revered. And like her grandfather, a doctorate may be in her future. She needs to review more devices, produce a one-woman present, write, travel and speak with “indigenous ladies who are dancers and drummers.”

Last summer time, Sule Greg Wilson, writer of The Drummer’s Path, contacted Kuumba. Within the e-book, revealed in 1992, Wilson discussed the reason why ladies shouldn’t drum, Kuumba stated. He referred to as Kuumba to ask for the names of all Giwayen Mata’s ladies drummers as well as input and suggestions on his ebook, Kuumba stated, so he might update the ebook to include the women of Giwayen Mata.

To see somebody change his stance on ladies and drumming is among the things that has made the work and sacrifice worthwhile, Kuumba stated. 

This type of visibility has been important to Giwayen Mata’s success, together with scholarship, inventive excellence and respect for ancestral traditions. At the heart of Kuumba’s work is the celebration of each individual’s genuine self, and how that empowers a gaggle. And regardless that the struggles have been actual — typically intense — Kuumba has found a deep wellspring of pleasure.


Some years ago, a Yoruba priest and pal requested Kuumba, “You understand how typically you hear the voice of the ancestors?”  

“No,” she stated truthfully. But she believed him. 

Months later, Kuumba was drumming, from her heart, at a good friend’s funeral. And something superb happened. “I was listening to the singing in there,” she stated. “It seemed like nothing I’ve ever heard.”

It was an ethereal sound — greater pitched like a siren, but otherworldly. Since then, Kuumba has come to acknowledge that voice when she hears it, and she or he knows to surrender to its energy.

It’s like a runner’s high, she stated. “The moment that you simply feel like you’re getting tired, releasing and enjoyable into the rhythm of the motion, it provides you power to go a bit bit additional and play just a little bit longer and breathe better so you possibly can proceed to only be in it,” Kuumba stated. “It’s candy. It’s exhilarating.”

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