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DanceAfrica’s Baba Abdel R. Salaam Shares Knowledge of an Original People

Baba in the Baka Rainforest. DanceAfrica Artistic Director Baba Abdel R. Salaam

Every year in May the distance is shortened to zero between the African continent and the village of Brooklyn when DanceAfrica and the vast array of Diasporic cultural, performance, entrepreneurial, and creative arts merge within and outside of the collective domains of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and its nearby community partners’ spaces.

Conceived in 1977 by Chuck Davis, the experience is helmed, since Davis’s transition, by his heir, the great dance master Baba Abdel R. Salaam as Artistic Director.
On Memorial Day weekend for the past 47 years, the culminating dance performance, deemed the largest festival of its kind in America, is highlighted by the dancing and artistries of an area of the Mother Continent. This year, Baba Salaam’s inspirational research and work originated in the Cameroons.

BAM’s longest-running annual program is almost synonymous with the month of May Dance Month, as audiences witness the majestic reunion of cultures in BAM’s Howard Gilman Theatre. In a telephone interview last week, Baba Salaam graciously shared his experience “on the other side” which concludes the month-long cultural immersive homage to the ancestors at BAM, May 24 – May 27

His most recent journey is told below in narration form, followed by — in response to our question regarding the importance of the arts in the lives of young people — glimpses of his deep personal involvement in the arts since age four; and then a foray into the DanceAfrica’s founding principles.


Bernice Elizabeth Green: For more than six decades we have watched the human body taken to greater heights, on various New York City stages. Please share some of your memories of being grounded and stilled in the Motherland as you conducted research for this year’s DanceAfrica project.
Baba Abdel Salaam:
I was excited to go, and one of the reasons was that this Central African nation touches the cultures of the Congo. Some of the languages of the Congo and Cameroon cross-pollinate. But the thing that’s always fascinated me about Cameroon, the Congo, and Central Africa — but I’ll stay with the Congo — was the rainforest. I have always been captivated by the construct of the rainforest.

In addition to the fact that I had never been there, the Cameroon rainforest stretches across the country. It’s one of the most fertile important areas of the planet, it almost sets climate and fertility, and the planet’s ability to survive.

Like in South Africa, without the rainforest, we’d be in deep stuff. The origin of Civilization is in Africa, and its earliest inhabitants lived in the rainforest. In my preliminary research, the hunter-gatherer phase of our development and evolution, were founded by members that have become who we are today — the modern human species which some researcher says is more than 200,000 years old. But that group of people — to survive and be protected and, I guess, decide that they still are hunter-gatherers — didn’t want to move from savanna to savanna, nor plain to plain; they settled in the rainforest.

When I did my preliminary research, the Baka were not performing because, one, they don’t come out of their community. A couple do, just for tourism purposes and some people leave to go to school and they return. But that community remains where they are; they stay in the rainforest. Some research reveals they have been in the Cameroonian rainforest for 40,000 years; another says 50,000 years.


I wanted to experience that, and I told them, and I guess in my preliminary research — and this goes back to when I was a student attending archeology and anthropology lectures at different schools, plus the Museum of Natural History –and they would talk about the Origins.

Researchers did work that was more at the later phase; they would constantly say that all of the various developments and evolutions of our human family came out of Africa.

So, we know that group of people were the progenitors of the human family and the beginning of the human family. I have always been fascinated with that, I wanted to see that. Up close.
A sister by the name of Kunda, originally from Cameroon, (raised in Paris) was our contact and go-to person for this trip.

Kunda right now is in a coma in Paris. She contracted malaria while spending time with her family. It attacked her brain, so she went into a coma. They expect her to come out of it, but it is one day at a time.. You can’t take anything for granted, which is why, this construct to DanceAfrica is so important, because as I learned from Baba Chuck, you might it is it’s important for us to always honor the people that came before us, the work that’s being done that allows the culture and all of us to survive. Then, beyond that, to make sure that we keep the names listed of those who have done the work.

We had a great time while we were there, and it was Kunda who arranged the trip, a life-altering experience for me.


First, we travelled from the city, from Yaoundé – on regular paved roads. Then we got into what we thought was going to be the rougher part of the journey, which was six hours travelling on a mud-filled road. (Imagine driving in a car that’s across the Sahara dunes except that it’s mud, on mud. Not sand.)

The car is tilting sometimes at 45 degrees, stopping and jumping. Then we got stuck in the mud, again, with the wheels spinning and had to get out and push the car. For five hours.
We get to a village, right before crossing the river to Baka country.

We stayed in that village that night, we ate with the people, and we shared dances. They showed us their traditional dances and we did some of our hip-hop. House stuff and of course, they had cell phones, so they recognized some of it, some of it they didn’t. We just had a wonderful time, no lights. The lights we did have were battery operated, no electricity.

We woke up to the sound of the roosters crowing and they were like four of them over a city block area, so the roosters were crowing to one another, starting at four in the morning. You wake up because it’s nonstop. Anyway, that’s another conversation. We finally got to the banks of the river. But it’s the end of the rainy season, and the rain is still coming. And we’re sitting in the rain. We couldn’t avoid it.

Finally, there’s a lighter rain, and we travelled across the river in a small barge. We get out and it’s about a 45-minute walk from the river to the opening where you go into Baka country. All this happens before we can even get to the settlement.


What they allowed me to do was ride with someone on a motorbike and so I went ahead of the group, because I was the oldest person travelling and I have bad knees. So, I’m sitting in this opening, in this amazing field and people are walking by and they’re singing to each other in languages and they’re looking at me because it’s obvious I’m not from there. I’m sitting on top of an old tree that was knocked over by the rain, waiting for everybody else to catch up with me.

Tall grass, as high as me and bushes and stuff. I’m looking to make sure that nothing crawls up on the tree, up in the tree but I’m cool, I’m having a great time. Everybody arrives and then we enter the opening together to travel to Baka. And the walk is about maybe 50 minutes to an hour.

We walk now through the clearing, because now there’s no access, there’s no access to anything anymore.

See, to get to the settlement, you have got to walk through the bush. You enter the bush, and you’re in the rainforest. We walked through the dense rainforest along small pathways. The pathway is created by people walking through it, but it is covered with vines and trees and little small, not deep, areas of quick sand, Maybe like two feet deep.

They told us to make sure we brought boots. I had boots that went up to my knees. One of the travelers did not. He wore sneakers. The guide had sneakers, too, but he knew what to avoid, my colleague did not. We confronted quicksand and mud, and thick bushes, vines whacking us in the face and the body, and huge fore ants with mandibles.


I’m going to make sure if we ever return to Baka, we’re ALL wearing boots.
Anyway, we get to the settlement you’re looking for where everybody lives, and first, you can’t see the village. Because the housings they create for themselves — like small village huts — are made from the exact environment; they look exactly like the rainforest: Dwellings are camouflaged; they look like the environment. It looks like giant leaves and vines, and mud and trees, and wood and stuff but the conical or circular shaped domes of green are the only thing that let you know that it’s not a product of nature we are seeing.

It is a small encampment.
The shelters are at one with the environment. Gradually, the people start coming out of the nature huts — one by one, two by two, and so on. Gradually, whole families reveal themselves, and the children start running back and forth.

OTP:Almost like a dance.
Baba Salaam:
Right. Right. We talk, we ask questions and plus, you know me, I’m a question motormouth. I’m asking and the translator is translating.
“How do you tell time?” I asked.
He replied, “One day at a time.” He showed us an indigenous [Kani] calendar. They mark the days, one at a time. They don’t necessarily keep track, like we did in ancient Cameroon, Ghana, Mali with roosters and astronomy.
You can barely see the sky at night because the trees are a 100, 75 feet, or 25 feet tall and the canopy of the leaves and bushes are so high you can kind of see the sky, its various openings, but it’s a canopy, a foliage, flora and fauna, which was fascinating.
I ask him, “How did you survive that long in the rainforest?”
I’m paraphrasing: He said, “The forest feeds us and it nurtures us and it protects us.”
He said, “So, we honor the forest and our ancestors and the spirit of the forest.”
He said, “And every day, every day, we dance, we speak the names of our ancestors, and we dance.
“So, remember every day, and every day wherever you are, you say the name of your ancestors and for them, you must dance.”
That was my impetus for my Spirit Walker for this year’s DanceAfrica.
That’s what I got out of that. The whole thing I’m doing is in honor of that conversation I experienced.
The Baka people have different Baka villages, but remember it’s connected to the Congo. It bleeds into the Congo. You have some of the Twa villages that also feed right into that same rainforest.

OTP:While we are “there” right now, I want you to describe to our readers the rainforest. When you say rain and forest, what are you talking about? Visually and in terms of your senses? Are you feeling rain 24 hours?
Baba Salaam:
Sure. Remember, rather than four seasons, in the desert regions, they think of it as being in three seasons. Basically and in West Africa and in Central Africa, primarily, there are two seasons, the dry season, and the rainy season.

The rainy season is where it rains off and on almost all the time, and the dry season is where you don’t have a lot of rain. That’s even within their tropical rainforest which is rich and plush because it has the heaviest inundation of rain when it does happen. In New York, You’ve got six inches of rain, four inches of rain, two inches of rain.


But here you may have something like twelve inches of rain. It doesn’t flood the area, but the flora and fauna are constantly doused for about half a year. Sometimes more, sometimes less with a constant inundation of rain. That’s why everything is dense. Nobody is coming to cut the grass or chop the trees. They only chop the trees down to make their dwellings.

You got to get through the bush to get to this dwelling. When you’re looking up, you see the sky peeking through the leaves and the branches of the trees, but there’s no big opening of the sky. Since we were there at the end of the rainy season, it was raining like three, four times a day.

Sometimes, we would be there and then we’d duck under something near the settlement or a big patch of leaves or, sometimes, they would build a canopy out of dried leaves and wood and other plant life and weave it together so we can say raffia or some of it felt like raffia, but it wasn’t the raffia I’m used to in Guinea and Mali. It wasn’t dried and yellowed.

It was green and greenish brown. That’s where we sat, that’s where we ate and that’s where we ducked when it rained.

They took us on a walk, and we were walking through the bush, and they showed us maybe 40 medicinal plants that kept them alive. Plants that the women took for their menstrual cycle, things that they said made the men fertile. When the dry season hits and they didn’t have as much rain and water, there were certain trees they collected and they would break the vines from the leaves and drink the water out of that, because they had stuff like, we used to call it plant crazy glue.


The guide took a blade and cut himself slightly. Then he went over and took a part of the plant, pulled off the bark and pulled out this sap, put the sap on the wound and it immediately drew itself together. It just drew up like crazy glue.

That’s what happens if you get cut by something.
Just imagine going through 40 different types of plants and dealing with headaches, wellness, your cycle, fertility, healing wounds and things that give you energy. So they’re going through this stuff with us, and we’re experiencing this on – what we called — The Plant Walk or the Medicinal Walk. It was probably a four-hour walk.

They are healthy people. We get to the evening, and they tell us, “Well, we’re going to dance for our ancestors and for you tonight.” They prepare themselves. They get dressed. They have a ceremony. They sing and they prepare. The Baka elder prays and he goes and sits on the side, and they build a fire.

Then the rain comes, because again, it’s the end of the rainy season. It’s not heavy like on the road. Here you have the trees blocking some of it, but it is raining inside the encampment. They begin to dance at around six o’clock. We’re watching.

They invited us to get up. This is not formal dancing. The Baka don’t necessarily teach people. They don’t rehearse and stuff. We get up and we do a few steps of what they’re doing. Then they ask us to take a solo, so we took a solo and we danced for them, and we sat down, and they continued to dance. They danced until like almost midnight.
Five and a half, six hours, nonstop. In the rain. Nonstop.
That’s energy.
We stop.


We stay in the little tents that carry one person, two people. You’re listening to the indigenous sounds of the birds and other animals that are there. You can basically hear other beings, I’m not sure if they are chimpanzees or monkeys, but those sounds are in the gibbon family. That’s what you hear.

The other thing in the environment, which was fascinating are called The Water Drums, but when we were on the walk, on the Medicine Walk, there was a stream and two of the women and a little boy, who had a little barge made from a log. jumps in with one of his friends and they sail out about 60 feet, then three women jump into the stream.
It’s not really a river. More like a small stream. But they start to play the river.

OTP:Play the river?
Baba Salaam:
The river becomes the drum. They’re slapping, they get one tone, they’re dropping their arm in it to get another tone. They push their elbow and their shoulder in to get another tone and they’re playing a rhythm and they’re singing a chant where they’re playing a song for us with the water drums. You just think water drum, you think it’s a drum. But no, it’s the drum. The stream is the drum.

You can count it. It felt like it was on a four-four, it wasn’t a six-eight, but you can hear the slapping of the river in time. On beat. The women are playing the river for us.
The three of them together sound like an orchestra.

I’d never seen it in person. That was one of the other reasons I wanted to go see the Baka. I wanted to see this water drumming. I wanted to see them play in the river. I wanted to see how they negotiated the environment. Then while we were on the other, near the medicinal trees, we talked about how I felt about being in the environment.


There were two of the little, little young boys, they were young. They ran up the trees and because they walk around barefoot all the time, the calluses on their bottom of their feet are like, it’s like a rubber sole, running up the tree like the lions run up the tree They grab the tree, they run up the tree, and as we’re walking along, they’re jumping from branch to branch.

As we were walking on the ground, two of them jumped from branch-to-branch walking with us and eventually we get, wherever, it was 100 feet, 200 feet away. Then they come down the tree. One little brother, about nine years old slides down the tree with his feet and then he’s on the ground. Do you see what I’m saying?

We stayed more than a day and a half, almost two days. It became research for me almost accidentally. I was going for the experience and then all this information started revealing itself to me and to us on the trip. It was like, “Oh, no, this is bigger than coming to see folks dancing in the rainforest. Although I took that, because to me, as a choreographer and a dancer, the dancing in the rain felt familiar.

When it started to rain and it got dark, the only light that you had –because you didn’t have light from the stars because it was raining — the only light that you had to see was from this very small campfire.

\And they kept it alive. The damp trees prevented the flames from going all the way up. You’re watching it and eventually your eyes adjust to this very dim light and it’s very clear what you’re seeing, yet the darker it gets – there are moments where I guess the cloud — because clouds travel at night — would be like coming in from the stars, piercing the canopy.


Then it gets even darker, and the imagery becomes very faint, shadowlike. But the people are still dancing. They’re still singing. I’ll never complain about studio (work) again in my life. You know what I mean?

I had my cell phone but after a while we didn’t have service. Some of the people had cell phones in the village that we were staying in before we got to Baka.
I’m looking at all of this and thinking to myself, this is how we survived in this environment for thousands of years. This is how we survived in the environment. Living simply. Living in harmony with the forces of nature.

The guide said, “The forest, she feeds us, she nurtures us, she protects us, and we need it, she heals us and its home.
Meaning: “We are not trying to go nowhere. We’re right here and we stay here.”

OTP: DanceAfrica showcases the works of emerging artists and engages very young people in the performing arts through its close ties with Brooklyn neighborhood dance and arts programs. Also, May is National Child Mental Health Awareness month as well as Dance Month. Please share snapshots of your arts instruction and training starting as young as age 4, and the impact of those experiences on your life?
Baba Salaam:
My grandfather was an entertainer, a comedian, who toured with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. He and my father used to take me backstage at the Apollo Theatre in the 1950’s. That experience fired me up. My grandmother enrolled me in visual arts programs. At a young age, I discovered art, started with a pencil, and eventually moved into acrylic and oil. At age five or six, I began music studies on 117th Street in Harlem with the late Thelma Hill – my first music teacher. To teach harmony and theory, she had her students learn and play the xylophone and glockenspiel. I was fortunate to learn from her.

I was one of those Brown vs. Board of Education babies. At the time, they were taking two kids out of a Harlem school and transferring them downtown where there were more resources and culture shock. For two years, I studied and played viola at the school on Madison Avenue near 82nd St. Right down the block, was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I hung out there with my friends, for maybe three or four days a week. Then I went to operas.


I was getting the black experience from my family, who were part of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem. At a young age, I was meetings Fats Domino, who I believe was also a comedian, Nipsey Russell and Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, Honi Coles, the tap dancer. My Father used to work with Sugar Ray Robinson.

I became a jazz fanatic. My favorite album was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Coltrane and Cannonball were my idols. I read every night, and I would listen to my favorite album. I even played saxophone for three years. I was good. Took the audition for H.S. of Music and Art, and I got in.

It was in orchestra in theory and harmony, and I got all the way up to orchestra six out of orchestra eight. I did not want to be a viola player, but I had the history with the Museum of Modern Art so, still, after school, I would always go to the museums: Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim on 92nd Street.

I kept on drawing and studying and talking about the arts. I came up around all these people in show business, so I was always around clothes. My father was married to a woman who was the head of men’s tailoring at Los Angeles Training Institute. She made custom-tailored clothes for my father, and I would inherit his hand-me-down tailor-made clothes.

I was just flooded with artistic experiences. It’s like I couldn’t have gotten away from it. I wanted to be a saxophone player. There was a band in the South Bronx. I can’t remember the name of those projects where they talked me into playing saxophone with them. This is before right before I started dancing …


When I got out of music and art, I was drafted. My father told me to take the audition for the Navy band because I had been playing saxophone since junior high school, I had to take a solo. Luckily, I got into the program and that’s how I got into college. But I loved dance…

I met Joan Miller and Chuck Davis at Lehman College. Joan brought me into joining the Lehman dance club, in, around, ’69. She founded the fine arts program and I started studying formally and Chuck came to Lehman in ’70. The rest is history. And a big part of my own history was the influence of Joan, Chuck, Louis Falco and so many others – all ancestors now.
So, I was one of those young kids, came up in the ghetto, came up in Harlem, living on 122nd Street.

My grandmother was a nurse’s aide,7th grade education, didn’t have a lot of money. My mother Margaret worked as a nurse in the emergency room in Harlem, and then became a director of the Greater Harlem Nursing Home. And my father kept me connected to the arts. My grandmother to my social political consciousness because she was one of the first people who joined 1199.

My grandmother, by marriage, my grandfather’s second wife, Sarah Louise Harris, was the first black female model in the fifties, working with one of those very famous modeling agencies.
Between the music of all genres, the visual arts, fashion, modelling, the only thing that wasn’t in it was dance. But that started with Joan who introduced me to dance when I was like 19 turning 20. She used to drag me around to ballet classes. She would go take a bar and have me come in with the class to take a bar at the American Ballet Theater. Of course, I have had a lot of modern dance.

OTP: With such a tremendous career you enjoy, currently and behind you, what more do you seek for now and in the future?
Baba Salaam:
To continue, as long as I can, to find ways to do work that raises the consciousness of society through the arts, to improve on the things that are holding us back from evolving and becoming a better place for all of us.


That’s on the humanitarian level. On the holistic, to stimulate my people, my own people, the African Americans to believe in themselves, to honor their heritage and their legacy, and to continue to lift us up and understand that culture is organic, is an evolving dynamic thing that is not stagnant. It continues to grow and evolve.

If I use DanceAfrica, like my company as an example, in both things, I’ve got straight up vernacular work, drama and dance stuff. I’ve got a ton of contemporary stuff that’s environmentally driven, that talks about healing, the earth and living in harmony with the forces of nature and the environment. I do spend time studying ecology and environment, the two are related but different.

I try to do pieces in ballets that talk about relationships and social change and politic and war, and the evils and the ills of a society and racism. But a good bulk of the work is centered in the universal principles of Kwanzaa and so was Chuck, by the way.

In fact, DanceAfrica’s underlying seven principles are founded in collective work, and responsibility and my work always will focus on those principles and how they empower us as a people but also, those are universal principles. Because who would not want to live in unity and have a purpose in life, having self-determination and being creativity.

It’s like, hey, you come up with something, we get with each other, we argue about it, we debate it. We come up with a synthesis of what we feel is the best of the thought and we put it out in our academic leanings and our constructs because all, everything is a construct. What we’re doing right now, is a – you’re preparing this story — is a construct.


The question is: How do we take those constructs and have them evolve, organically grow, reflect dynamic thought and intellectual insight into the cultural growth of the times that we live in, and how did the things that we continue to create, either through your newspaper or my art, or the scientist, or what, or politics, or laws making changing, as our rights are given, and taken, away. Look at the dark side of what’s happening in politics right now.
But there’s still light.

For Brother Abdel R. Salaam’s biographical information and a listing of professional credits please visit the DanceAfrican website at
(Upcoming in Part II, Abdel Salaam talks about The Forces of Light, Darkness and Nature; and more on the symbolism in the Living Culture of the Calabash and the Kwanzaa Principles as a Gift to the Community and to the World.)

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