Asase Yaa brings West African culture to North Side


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West Africa comes to Pittsburgh this weekend. Via Brooklyn.

It’s a performance by the Asase Yaa African-American Dance Theatre, presented by Pittsburgh’s Kente Arts Alliance, Saturday evening at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

For 13 years, Asase Yaa has been spreading West African culture through song and dance. Though the group does much of its work in its home of New York, the dance company does tour — though not every year.

Saturday will be the troupe’s first visit to Pittsburgh. They will be bringing 17 performers — nine dancers, seven instrumentalists and one singer.

“This show is called ‘Drum Love,’” said founding member Kofi Osei Williams, who serves as executive director and is a musician with the company. He will be among the artists on stage here Saturday.

“We put a ballet together about a young girl that came from a village into the city and she met some artists and she was amazed with them, but they took advantage of her. She sees that the people she was running to were the wrong people; she already had a core of people in the community who helped to show her a better life.

“So you’re going to get a lot of strong dancing, strong singing, you’re going to get powerful drumming by men and women. There’s some contemporary stuff that we created ourselves and some more traditional stuff also.”

The traditional stuff is pretty cool. From the costumes and dance to the music, some of it played on a balafon, which is an instrumental instrument in the Manding culture.

But the target audience is not limited to people with roots in Africa.

“The African dance community is so vast and there are so many groups of people, and we reach out to everybody,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s not only the African-American community. It’s all people who are interested in African dance and tradition. Also people who are looking for a different experience in dance theater. A lot of African dance is formatted in a certain way, and we are still attempting to change that and make the format broader, something that people of all backgrounds can appreciate.”

Kente Arts Alliance, the presenter, is a nonprofit group, founded in 2007, that works to present art of the African diaspora in hopes of entertaining, informing and lifting residents of underserved communities.

“We’re trying to fill what we see as some gaps in the art offerings here in Pittsburgh by focusing on those kinds of things that would be considered ‘black art,’” said Gail Austin, managing director of Kente Arts Alliance and one of its founding members. “We are primarily — but not entirely — focused on performing arts. We’ve done jazz, film, and dance.”

The mission is important to Ms. Austin, a lifelong Pittsburgh resident who grew up in the Hill District and now lives in Manchester on the North Side. A retired member of the academic support center in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, she saw Asase Yaa perform in New York and worked to bring them here.

“One of the things I appreciate most is that they not only entertain but inform about the culture and art that comes out of Africa,” she said. “It’s important because culture tells a lot about peoples of the world. Not knowing about something just makes you kind of stupid, really. One should be informed in order to have a well-rounded and rich life experience. We all should know about the other cultures of the world.”

The Pittsburgh arts community, she said, has some gaps to fill, particularly relating to Africa and the Caribbean.

“Some of my Caribbean friends tell me, ‘Oh, there’s never anything here from the culture of Trinidad. There’s no Jamaican music,’” Ms. Austin said. “We’re going to try to address that as well.”

But it’s not easy.

“We have two to three big events a year,” Ms. Austin said of her organization. “We’re trying to reach four. Try as we might, we’re having a difficult time getting over that hump.”

The Asase Yaa African-American Dance Theatre is one of those big events. The show begins at 8 p.m. Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater in 6 Allegheny Square East on the North Side. You can get tickets for $20 at showclix.com or at the door.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.


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