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“Culture Is Good for Business”
Ketu Oladuwa, TRIAAC, and Breath of Africa Festival
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Culture is good for business.
That’s the philosophy, or at least part of the philosophy, behind the Three Rivers Institute of Afrikan Arts and Culture (T.R.I.A.A.C.), the non-profit organization that local musician and artist Ketu Oladuwa set up two years ago as an umbrella for the different projects and events he has been involved with in Fort Wayne for many years.
“TRIAAC is an institute in the sense that what our intention is is to bring Africa and the artistic products of African people into the mainstream arts in this community,” Oladuwa explains.
TRIAAC’s largest event so far, the A Breath of Afrika Festival, happens on Saturday, September 19 on Douglas Avenue and features a diverse line-up of local and “outside” talent performing a range of African-based music and dance. “What we’re going to bring with this festival are local artists who have their musical expression in traditional African arts,” says Oladuwa. “We’re going to bring classic dance or stepping style from the traditional Southern College genre, so African-American stepping is going to be involved. There’s going to be reggae — reggae connected, of course, with the islands of the Caribbean. And there’s also going to be Afro-Cuban music.”
“The focus is on the African-American community, on the African community, and what Africa has produced,” he adds.
Performers include Timbalaye!, a Chicago-based group that performs various African influenced musical traditions from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other Afro-Latin musical traditions.
Also on the bill is Stan Champion’s Roots Rock Society, another award-winning group from Chicago that blends reggae, calypso, soul, zouk and other rhythms of the African Diaspora. The band was awarded the 2008 “Best Calypso/Soul” ensemble at the 28th Annual Chicago Music Awards in 2008 Stan Champion, the group’s founder, started his recording career at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica in 1980 and Curtis Mayfield’s Custom studios in Chicago in 1981. He formed the Roots Rock Society in 1987, walking away from a successful advertising career to devote his energies to music.
Rounding out the A Breath of Afrika Festival is the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble, the American Legion Stepafonics, poet Condra Ridley and an open mic session.
Oladuwa is perhaps best known in Fort Wayne for his work with the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble, a group that performs and promotes traditional West African music through education. Formed in 1990, the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble was initially under the auspices of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective but is now part of TRIAAC. But Oladuwa’s work as a teacher and artist goes back nearly four decades, including stints in journalism and New York theater, and he’s been involved in many community-based arts projects. “Some of the best-known and most influential people in the city are creative folk who have their roots in artistic expression,” he says. “I’ve been in Fort Wayne for 25 years, and some of the first people I met when I got here as a journalist were poets and musicians who were playing in local bars, in house parties, at the American legion, who were playing downtown.” Another ongoing TRIAAC project is the acoustic spoken word coffee house, a bi-weekly poetry reading/music performance that typically features two local artists plus an open-mic segment, usually with acoustic accompaniment.
But with the A Breath of Afrika festival, Oladuwa hopes to lay the groundwork for something bigger in Fort Wayne. “This community has a pretty wide-ranging conversation about multiculturalism and diversity,” he says. “It’s a community that is pretty open, given its conservative nature, to other people living and participating in the life here. We just want to make sure that Africa and Africa’s people are among those people who are considered when business gets transacted in the arts community.”
“I think that by people getting a different take on Africa and African people, that might enrich the conversation here, the opportunities here, both for African people here and for other folks doing business,” he continues. “There are contacts we have in Africa that need to be exploited, and we’re about building those bridges to the continent.”
Culture, he adds, is good for business. “One of the things America generally is going to becoming to grips with in the very, very near future — and at the decision-making levels of society they’re already trying to deal with it — is America’s influence in the world,” Oladuwa explains. “We have very little understanding of the rest of the world as a people. We don’t really teach our children at school anything about anybody else. For the most part, we’re monolingual; the rest of the world is multi-lingual, the rest of the world has a real understanding of what it means to live with other people. We don’t have that here.”
“Culture is a good way for us to get introduced to the rest of the world, so that as China rises, as the Eastern ring rises, as the nations of Africa begin to rise again, America won’t get left behind. There’s a wave of progress that’s happening at the educational level, but we’re getting left behind. Culture is a good way to introduce our children, and our business community, to the rest of the world, so that we can acclimate ourselves to the world that we are going to live in. We’re not prepared now.”
This global picture, however, has to start at home. “What people have in the rest of the world that we don’t have, that we have given up, is their family ties and their community roots,” Oladuwa says. “That’s why we’re doing this festival. It’s a collaboration between TRIAAC, the African and African-American Historical Museum, the American Legion, the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority, Summit City Electric, Arts United… that’s why the festival is happening, because people have agreed that we can work together for something that might be in our best interests.”
Oladuwa plans to turn A Breath Of Afrika into an annual event, and is already looking at what other African-based or influenced music he would like to bring in in the future. “There’s music and dance from the continent itself, particularly Guinea, Mali, Senegal, not just the interpretation the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble does, but the art as it is practiced on the continent,” he says. “There’s music from Columbia, from Paraguay, from Alaska, that we’re looking at for next year. We want to be able to provide a wide spectrum of influence that the creative life of Africa has had on culture worldwide.”
A Breath of Afrika is made possible in part by a neighborhood innovation grant from Arts United.
A Breath of Afrika Festival
Saturday, September 19, 11 am – 6 pm (concerts start at 3 pm)
Douglas Avenue (between Lafayette and Clay Streets)
Stann Champions’s Roots Rock Society
Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble
American Legion Stepfonics
Admission is FREE