By: MaryJo Nuzzo
If you’ve walked through Hartwell Hall at SUNY Brockport, you’ve probably heard the commanding, yet melodic tones of the djembe. The djembe is a traditional drum that originates from West Africa. This is the sound of the Sankofa African Drum and Dance Ensemble.
Sankofa Artistic Director and Professor of Dance at SUNY Brockport Jenise Anthony has been with the dance department and Sankofa since 2019. During her time at SUNY Brockport, Anthony has reshaped the choreography of countless traditional African dances.
“The mission of Sankofa is to share African culture and traditions with the community and to expose Western New York to unique African traditions and make people more aware of them,” Anthony said. “It (touring) is also for our enjoyment. It gives the performers more opportunities and a high impact learning opportunity by being able to learn outside of the classroom. Touring enriches everyone’s experience as students,” Anthony said.
This year, the Sankofa Ensemble has performed multiple times in Rochester, and more recently they traveled to Queens where they performed for high school students.
African Music Specialist Mohamed Diaby works with drummers and dancers in the Ensemble. Diaby is from Guinea, West Africa and has been playing the djembe since he was a child. Diaby believes that the music of the djembe can change someone’s life for the better.
“The reason why I want to share this with others (through teaching at SUNY Brockport) is that it has been very important and inspiring, to me,” Diaby said.”I think if I share it with somebody who loves it and will embrace it, I think it will change their life. I have met students here in this country and this instrument has changed their lives, in a good way, I just love it, this is something that my heart has accepted, to be an artist, a musician. I saw some of my elders who do it (play the djembe) and they were able to survive. I can survive through this and look, I am here in the United States. I’ve been to Japan, Hawaii, Paris, different places in West Africa, Toronto, you name it — through this instrument,” Diaby said.
Diaby is eager to get his students involved with the Sankofa Ensemble.
“I found out about Sankofa my freshman year through my African 1 dance class,” said student Anaheysha Baptiste-White. “I took African dance prior to coming to college, that’s my main dance skill. I wore the shirt from my old dance studio (in African 1) and Mr. Mohamed (Diaby) noticed it and said You’re from that studio? Jenise, we need her in Sankofa! After that I started going to Sankofa and that’s how I ended up there as a freshman,” White said.
Sankofa dance classes are open to all students regardless of their major. White is in her junior year as a nursing major.
“From freshman year to now, going into a new dance environment surrounded by people who are dance majors, was really intimidating. All the upperclassmen were helpful and kind. Now I’m the upperclassman and I’m the one helping people out and I just want to show them love, because that’s what African dance is, you’re showing your love and support to one another. Just cheering, clapping, and having a good time,” White said.
White has a full schedule of challenging classes, labs and homework. Sankofa allows White to let go of all of the stressors of her day-to-day life.
“I love to dance and when I’m stressed from doing math and science all day and I finally get to Sankofa I’m like ahhh, I’m with my family, I can be myself. I can act silly and not feel judged. Some days it is stressful to go to Sankofa if I’ve had a long day and I think I can’t do it, but then I get in the studio and someone makes a silly joke or does a random cartwheel across the floor and it really puts a smile on my face and I join them because they look like they’re having a good time. I won’t bring my poor attitude into the space because this is a fun place to be,” White said.
Sankofa is a celebration of all things African. With the commanding, yet melodic tones of the djembe, audiences are treated to a lively, rhythmic event that bursts off the stage.Read more: Movement that can change lives