Philadelphia’s Kulu Mele African Dance & Drum Ensemble is observing its 50th anniversary with the world premiere of their new spellbinding production, “Ogun & the People,” on Saturday, Nov. 30, at 8:00Ppm at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Zellerbach Hall, located at 3680 Walnut Street.
The ensemble also will release its new commemorative book, “Kulu Mele’s Ogun & the People: Celebrating 50 Years (1969-2019),” at a reception, Friday, October 18at 6:00 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, located at 7th & Arch Streets. Founded in 1969 by legendary drummer Baba Robert “Ibikunle” Crowder (1930–2012), the dynamic ensemble is the oldest continually-performing African dance and drum ensemble in the nation.
Under Crowder’s expert tutelage, the ensemble has continued the traditions of iconic dancer/choreographers Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham by performing authentic dances of Africa and its diaspora, and became a major part of the foundation of Philadelphia’s Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Kulu Mele (translated as “voice of our ancestors”) helped give birth to a cultural renaissance in Philadelphia’s African American communities and attracted those who were eager to study and experience African culture through the performing arts. Scores of dancers and drummers were trained by Crowder at his longtime headquarters in West Philadelphia’s Lee Cultural Center.
“Ogun & the People” was commissioned by the Annenberg with major support from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The production explores a pataki (sacred parable) of the Yoruba deity Ogun – warrior, protector, dispenser of justice who brought civilization to the world – and the effect on the people when he leaves the village and retreats into the forest.
The support from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage allowed Kulu Mele to visit Santiago, Cuba to study the dance, music and spiritual traditions that form the basis of the story, with world-renowned Ballet Folklorico Cutumba in order to develop the full-length production.
“This trip was a long time in the making, “said artistic director Dorothy “Mama Dottie” Wilkie, who along with her husband, music director John “Wilk” Wilkie, have been with Kulu Mele since 1971. “I always dreamed of taking the group to Cuba, but didn’t know how I was going to do it. It took years of planning and thinking and then one day it hit me that we should go there and study with Cutumba, like we went to Africa and studied a play with Les Ballets Africains.”
Her vision for the production has been realized just as she visualized it, she said.. “It’s one of my favorite patakis about Ogun and Oshun, how he got angry, went into the forest and the whole community just went down,” she continued. “You know Ogun is the creator of minerals and iron. When he went into the forest everything we need to survive just stopped. Developing this production with Cutumba is everything I envisioned and more. People are going to love this performance!”
Kulu Mele has expanded its repertoire to include the musical and movement genres of Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana and the Senegambia region, as well as African American art forms like hip-hop, the bop, cha-cha and the slop.
Through the direction of the Wilkies, engaging performances vividly convey the meaning of dancing and drumming in the African and African Diaspora societies from which these traditions originated.
Over the years the husband and wife team traveled with Crowder to Guinea, Senegal, Ghana and Cuba to study the traditional dance and drum art forms that the group performs.
As keepers of the culture, the Wilkies continue Crowder’s legacy of advancing African culture by training and mentoring dancers and drummers so the culture will be preserved for future generations. Kulu Mele offers an arts education program for children and classes for adults.
“In the years to come, we want Kulu Mele to be known as one of the groups that passed the torch for the culture,” Mama Dottie said. “We want people to know that we sacrificed our lives to the culture. We kept the culture going. Kulu Mele truly is the voice of our ancestors.”
“The young people have their culture,” added Wilk. “We just want them to know that this is part of your culture, too.”
The fruit of our African ancestors’ dreams, Kulu Mele continues to keep the culture alive for future generations and serves as an educational vehicle and source of outstanding entertainment for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Tickets for “Ogun & the People” are selling fast and may be purchased online at (https://annenbergcenter.org/event/kulu-mele-african-dance-drum-ensemble), by phone at 215-898-3900 or the Annenberg box office. For information on a 25% discount for groups of 10 or more, call 215-573-8827.