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Sistah speak 

The all-female African drum-and-dance group Giwayen Mata swerves through identity politics to find its own beauty

The African dance, as danced in America by Americans, is a language not fully understood -- not by the audience, nor, for that matter, by the performer. Still, Giwayen Mata communicates with a force and eloquence that manages to get its message across regardless, no matter where you are now or where your ancestors lived 300 years ago.

The dense polyrhythms of hands beating on the djembe, the sangba, the dununba, the kenkeni; the bent-kneed agility of the colorfully garbed dancers -- stamping feet and nodding necks, contracting and releasing torsos, extending arms and chins, then leaping athletically into the air, a dozen or so in unison. It's an overwhelming amount of information, and it makes the heart race to keep up.

For 10 years, this has been the dialogue between audiences and Giwayen Mata, arguably Atlanta's premier African drum-and-dance troupe, probably the city's only all-American one, and certainly the city's only all-female one.

This Sunday, Giwayen Mata looks back on its first decade with "Speak Sistah Speak!" In part, the two performances are a celebration of the group's past, with former and occasional members returning to the core 15-member company. It's also the group's most ambitious production yet -- complete with professionally choreographed new works, ambitious self-choreographed pieces that break new ground, and the group's first-ever CD release, featuring Giwayen Mata's original drum-and-vocal compositions.

To reach this point, Giwayen Mata has weaved and swayed through a complex landscape of African-American identity, gender and sexual politics. As much as the group's actual movement, this agile dance through traditions and prejudices, "buts" and "you can'ts," is a testament to Giwayen Mata's grace and power.

But women don't drum
In the years before Giwayen Mata's birth, Atlanta's African dance scene was dominated by three groups: Uhuru African Dance Company, which dated back to the 1970s; Barefoot Ballet, a kids-oriented group; and Manya, an offshoot of Barefoot Ballet geared toward adults. For the most part, these groups had their roots in the Afro-centric reawakening that followed the civil rights era -- a time in the '60s when, more than ever before, American blacks started investigating the heritage of which they'd long been deprived. They began identifying themselves not simply on national terms, as an oppressed American underclass, but internationally, as a part of the larger, more richly defined African people.

The dancers in these groups were mostly women, but they hired male drummers to accompany them in classes and performances. Often, the musicians were not motivated by a goal of racial upliftment -- they just wanted to play, get paid and go home. This made it difficult for those committed to African dance as a cultural expression to arrange and afford live drums -- an essential part of the experience.

Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt found the drummers' attitude particularly frustrating. A Nigerian native who moved to Atlanta in 1988 with her American husband, she sought out, and was relieved to find, small pockets of African culture in town. But, she says, being inconsistent and uncommitted "is not what drummers are where I'm coming from. And if we're trying to perpetuate the culture, we should do it right."

Afegbua-Sabbatt had an idea: She would gather a group of women from the African dance companies in town and teach them to play drums, so that they could accompany each other's classes. First, though, she had to determine which drums were acceptable for women to play. Certain drums, she knew, were forbidden for Nigerian women to even see, while others were particularly designed for women's use. She researched the traditions of other African nations and found that the djembe, from the west coast of Africa, was not forbidden to women (though its weight and size had not made it a popular choice). Along the way, she also picked up some drumming techniques, which she brought to the dancers in Atlanta.

Soon a group of women were gathering regularly, in Piedmont Park or West End Park, to practice drumming. Among them were Omelika Kuumba, who worked with the Barefoot Ballet children's group, and her friend Gail Zuri Sami Ra Maati Jordan, who'd recently taken up drumming. As the women developed their skills, the practice sessions began to draw attention in the park.

"People were surprised that women were drumming," Jordan recalls. "In the drum community, people would give us dap [validation] and they would also give us fever [criticism]. The dap was about lifting us up, saying, 'Go ahead sister.' Whereas the fever would be about people suggesting to us that we should not drum because it could affect our reproductive organs, or that women should not touch the drum -- that they don't approve of our drumming."

The drummers might simply have fulfilled their original purpose -- accompanying dance classes -- had they not been approached, 10 years ago, by the women of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam. The Muslim women were organizing their Celebration '93 fashion show and fundraiser, an event for females only. Rather than view the drummers as a progressive, inherently feminist attraction, the event planners saw in them an entertainment solution that did not conflict with strict Islamic codes of modesty. Specifically, no men could be in attendance -- not even as entertainment -- since the women would be modeling clothes.

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