The audience cheered as the dancers moved fluidly across the main stage of the Lidj Yasu Omowale Emancipation Village at the Grand Stand, Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain during the opening ceremony for the village.
This style of African dance presented by the group was different to what we usually see our local dance troupes doing, but it was still clearly of Africa. The dancers on stage were members of the Something Positive Performing Company (SPPC) from Brooklyn, New York.
They are special guests of the Emancipation Support Committee, invited to be part of this year's Emancipation celebrations. Like our artistes here, they have blended their American cultural experience with their African heritage to create unique expressions in music and dance. Making the style of SPPC even more interesting is the Trinbago elements such as kaiso and rapso injected into what they do.
You see, the founder of the group is Cheryl Byron, a Trinidadian calypsonian, rapso artiste, dancer, poet and storyteller who passed away in 2003. She lived in Brooklyn and started SPPC several years before her passing. Byron, the first woman to perform rapso in a calypso tent, studied dance under the direction of Neville Sheppard and was also a member of the Caribbean Theatre Guild.
Byron was an ordained Reverend Mother in the Spiritual Baptist faith and worked as a professor at Medgar Evers College, the College of New Rochelle, City College and New York City Technical College.
Following her death her protégé Michael Manswell, who was also born in Trinidad, took over the role of artistic direction at the SPPC. The audience seemed to fall in love with Manswell at the opening of the Emancipation Village because of his very pleasant demeanor and interaction with them.
Manswell reminded the audience that it was Byron who started the SPPC and nurtured the musicians, dancers and others into the excellent performers that were before them that night. The group opened with a dance piece titled, "Santimanitay," which it followed with Manswell performing two rapso styled songs, "Africa" and "Beat, Beat Dem Drums," both of which were composed by Byron during the 1980's.
The SPPC then performed excerpts from a production they did last year titled, Sweet Nina Suite. This was in tribute to both Byron and her friend, Nina Simone an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist. A couple snippets of an interview with Simone were shown on a large screen that formed the backdrop of the stage before Simone's music was played and the dancers came alive.
Manswell performed more of Byron's songs, this time inviting the audience to sing with him as he did, "Money" and "Babylon". The audience became very excited and cheered as the drummers sped up the rhythm and the lead drummer did some solo cutting on his djembe drum. As the group exited the audience cheered loudly, clearly satisfied with what was offered.
Also performing was the Dayo Bejide Trio led by Modupe Folasade Onilu and featuring his brother, Baba Onilu along with a guitarist who also played the flute and did vocals. They performed instrumental pieces that combined the flute and guitar with hand drums and other ethnic percussion instruments all created by Jah Jah Oga Onilu who is the father of Modupe and Baba. A couple of the pieces blended rapso and African rhythms with a rock melodic structure that seemed to impress the audience.
Len "Boogsie" Sharpe too thrilled with his rendition of "Bring Down The Power" by Ella Andall. He injected a few bars from Bob Marley's, "Redemption Song" into the beginning of this piece, which was appreciated by the few people who picked up on it. Sharpe then performed his arrangement of "Pan Night And Day" by the Lord Kitchener.
The Black Stalin closed the show, accompanied by the Kelly Green Band opening with "We Can Make It If We Try". With people dancing and singing along, Stalin also sang, "Blackman Feeling To Party," "More Come," "Bun Dem," "Caribbean Unity" and "Look On The Brighter Side".