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Designer’s Brooklyn Sightings Help Set BAM’s Stage for DanceAfrica’s Authenticity

By Bernice Elizabeth Green
What attracts audiences to BAM’s DanceAfrica year after year are the quality performances and the fullness of an experience that is beyond entertainment.
And the evidence will be in full view this Memorial Day weekend, May 24-27, when DanceAfrica 2024: The Origin of Communities/A Calabash of Cultures, under the artistic direction of Abdel R. Salaam, comes alive on stage in BAM’s Howard Gilman Theater, 30 Lafayette Avenue. (Tickets and Information:

Baba Salaam and BAM have brought together several events in its showcase this year, including Community Workshops and Classes, May 25-30; the Late Night Dance Party, May 25; DanceAfrica Bazaar, May 25-27; and FilmAfrica, May 24-30.

On the line-up are the DanceAfrica Spirit Walkers, The Billie’s Youth Arts Academy Dance Ensemble, and the Women Of The Calabash. The artistic vision is brought to life with costume designs by Wunmi Olaiya, lighting design by Al Crawford, music and sound design by David Margolin Lawson, creating an immersive experience that celebrates the depth of Cameroonian culture and set design by Jasiri Kafele.

Where the “fullness” actually wells up is in the soul and vision of Baba Salaam, starting from when he, as a journeyman, gathered inspiration and research for the BAM presentation. As a culture caretaker, he usually returns to America from a region in Africa, carrying a calabash of memories, but choreography is not always distilled from “steps.” In fact, when he observed the dance movements of the Baka People of the equatorial rainforest of central Africa, he said, “It was like looking at a group that was improvising everything that they did.” And this has been carried down the line through hundreds of thousands of years.

So, when Baba returned to the United States this year, the souvenir he brought back was the “relic” of experience and the memory of it. How could that experience be reinterpreted on stage? It was up to the set designer to convey to BAM audiences Baba Abdel’s vision and experience. That set designer is from Brownsville.


He never set foot in Africa, never traveled to a rainforest, and grew up immersed in Brooklyn’s 1980s Hip Hop and art movement scene in BAM’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Yet, his background fulfilled the requirements.
In some ways BAM set designer Jasiri Kafele, introduced by Abdel to Our Time Press, on Tuesday, is as close to the Rainforest as anyone can get.

“Never been to Africa, never been in a rainforest,” he told us, “But I am part of a community that, with the drumming, the dancing, the singing, the words, is privy to the aesthetic.”
Born at Brookdale Hospital and raised in Brownsville, Kafele says of his interest in art, and his craft skills, “Everyone has a throughline skill; art always has been mine.” At first, he says it started out as recreational with his interest in the Hip Hop scenes around Brooklyn. “Poetry led me into graphic design. From that interest came photography. I worked with others in Fort Greene to start the Black Arts and Culture movement.

“We did poetry at the Brooklyn Moon, Royston’s, Frank’s Place, while Moshood hosted fashion shows up and down the street.” So, with this background, BAM, may not have been on his planned path, but it was within reach.

Within the last few years, Kafele, a decorative painter by trade, has worked on DanceAfrica. Many DanceAfrica followers may remember a set with an array of Adinkra symbols. And there were the DanceAfrica performances with the now famous Olmec head. Those were Kafele’s designs and executions. But this year, Salaam challenged Kafele with the idea he brought back from where the Baka people call home.

“The way this works,” Kafele told us, “Abdel gives me info about an idea he has and the idea for the art itself. My job is invested in making sure his vision comes to life. Once I get lost in the concept of how it can be done, I am committed.” But this year, Abdel asked Kafele for an idea that quadrupled the size of any other set design he had worked on for Dance Africa.
“He sent me pix of his trip and said, ‘I want a rainforest.’”


In a previous interview, Abdel told Our Time Press, “I’m looking at how we survived in this environment for thousands of years. Visiting a village in the Baka region, the trek for DanceAfrica was not only to note and code the dancers but also to experience the very origins of civilization and “discover how we survived in the environment for so long unaffected.” The Baka people never leave their villages. They lived as their ancestors lived thousands of years ago.

Baba told Our Time Press, that it was the forests that “nurtured, protected and healed.” It, in effect, was their lifeline. He said the roofs of the huts are made of long, palmy leaves, no nails. The solar panel is the sun itself. The stage was the ground itself. At night, the stars and moon, after campfires expired, were their flashlights.

But with a limited budget, “you can’t just go out and purchase a forest,” Kafele told us in jest, adding, “So you start thinking what you want to do, and the stage tells you what it wants to be.”
This weekend in the Gilman auditorium, attendees will be looking at lots of foliage, real, not plastic, and it will maintain its composure and color. Already set up, Kafele assures it will look the same at showtime. I selected them according to their size, thickness, and ability to withstand time. The leaves are hardy.”

And the huge shadowy tree renderings? “Those were my first 30-foot trees. I made them based on trees in my neighborhood. I free-styled.”
Kafele told Our Time Press that part of the foliage creating the Baka hut Abdel described to him was from a downed tree in Philadelphia. “We were driving and spotted the tree at the side of the road. I hopped out and put it in the back of my vehicle.”

So, you saw your assignment, you saw Africa…not only through many picture books but … right around you, we offered. Kafele responded, “Well, that is exactly the point. Of course, there are changes while you are doing what you are trying to do.”
An inspired Abdel has merged his and Kafele’s vision of the DanceAfrica rainforest with the 2024 DanceAfrica presentations. “There is this particular dance with raffia, a huge rounded raffia wrapped around them from the neck all the way to the floor. There are turns, winds and spins as the raffia swirls. It looks like the raffia is growing.”


There will also be a Spirit Walker dance, combining West African movement, Hip Hop, and some house music fused together.
But one of the stars, too, will be BAM’s rainforest scenery, Kafele’s design interpretation of Abdel’s memory of a sustainable fixture of nature – the rainforest.