By GENA MANGIARATTI
Gazette Contributing Writer
(Published in print: Friday, April 11, 2014)
NORTHAMPTON — It’s been a special year for Pioneer Valley Performing Arts teacher Alpha “Kabisko” Kaba.
In January, he not only visited his home country of Guinea for the first time in 15 years, but he shared the experience with his students.
After 10 months of fundraising, several members of Wofa, PVPA’s African drum and dance company, took a three-week trip to Guinea to study their craft as well as become immersed in the daily culture.
This weekend, they will bring what they learned back to the Valley.
Kaba, 41, of Holyoke, moved to the United States as a member of another African dance company, “Les Merveilles de Guinée,” in 1998. He began teaching at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley in 2008, and founded Wofa in 2009 as a way to teach more students about African culture and history, he said.
Wofa, in the Guinean language of Sousou, means “let’s get together.”
Wofa consists of 19 students — 13 dancers and six drummers. Currently, the dancers are all girls and the drummers are all boys, which Kaba notes is historically typical, but not restrictive. “I’m a man. I’m a dancer,” he noted.
At a recent rehearsal at PVPA, Kaba frequently rose from his drum between sets to direct the dancers, such as by demonstrating arm movements. The group rehearses in classes during the school day, as well as twice a week after school, he said.
The drums are made of one of two different types of wood found in Guinea. Some drummers wear ear protection, as well as tape on their hands to prevent blisters. While playing, they maintain a look of intense concentration, but exchange side glances and smiles as they keep the beat.
Kaba and his students raised the $30,000 needed to fund the trip through a combination of online campaigns and collecting donations while performing in the street in front of First Churches in Northampton.
He wanted to take the students to his home country, he said, in part to offer them a perspective on Africa that counters the images of poverty commonly presented in the media.
“The things they hear online or on TV — it’s not how it is over there,” he said. “We never get the true story.” While in Guinea, Kaba was reunited with his mother and eight siblings — three sisters, and five brothers. Kaba is the middle child, with four older siblings and four younger.
Students explored the capital city of Conakry as well as several villages in the surrounding area. They participated in drum, dance and language lessons each day, and at the end of the trip, performed at the home of U.S. Ambassador Alexander Mark Laskaris.
For Aishatou Diallo, 15, a PVPA sophomore from Northampton, the trip was something of a reunion as well. Her father, Mohamed Khazzaly of Worcester, was born in Guinea, and several of her relatives still live there, she said, including cousins, aunts, uncles and her grandmother.
“The best part for me was being able to experience the whole thing with my Wofa family and my family there in Guinea,” she said. Before January, she had last been to Guinea when she was 3.
She described the trip as eye-opening. “It’s a very welcoming place and the people are extremely kind,” she said. Even in the poorer areas they visited, she said she noticed that “overall, the art is always kept alive.”
Wofa dancer Lulu Kuphal, 15, a PVPA sophomore from Longmeadow, also described the trip as eye-opening, noting that there were cities with tall buildings and paved roads that looked similar to places in the United States, but there were also poorer, more rural areas with huts.
She said the rigor of the daily dance lessons have changed the way she approaches performing.
“I have learned to work harder with my dancing,” Kuphal said. They danced “nonstop” each day — the typical schedule of Guinean performers, she said. “My stamina was definitely built and I feel like emotionally and physically, I’m a stronger person.” But her favorite part of the trip, she said, was meeting the people.
“Even though we were only there for about three weeks, we just created such a strong bond with them,” she said. “Although we didn’t speak the same language, we could communicate in a way that was kind of unexplainable.”