The spicy smell of stewed meat in curry sauce permeated the air. Red, green and yellow fabrics draped around the bodies of young women, contrasting beautifully with the all-white attire of young men. Rhythmic, pulsing, bass-heavy music played in the background.
The scene was set last Friday, when an audience comprised mostly of students almost filled Kresge Town Hall. The African Student Union (ASU) artfully shattered prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions of Africa, African-Americans and the African diaspora through its performance of “Africa, My Africa.”
ASU transformed Kresge Town Hall, bringing the bright colors, inviting tastes and drum-laden sounds of the multicultural African continent to UC Santa Cruz, proving that future ASU events will be a prime setting for cultural experiences you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on campus.
Although the show was advertised to begin at 7 p.m., activities were not underway until about an hour later. The crowd didn’t seem to mind, however, as almost everyone immediately took a place in the long food line, clearly eager to sample the dishes whose smells were hanging enticingly in the air.
The warm smells and richly spiced tastes of curried lamb, sambusas (a staple dish in the Horn of Africa, somewhat akin to an East Indian samosa) and rice with bright green peas strewn over it kept the attendees happy as ASU members buzzed about in their bright and flowing clothes, preparing to give the audience the show they eagerly came to see.
After the audience was finally seated with their bellies full, the room darkened. The sudden pounding of a lone drum sounded off the first half of the performances, which were devoted to recognizing the diversity of life, identity and culture in multiple African nations — nations represented by the 17 ASU members.
The drummer addressed the audience: “Where did it all begin?” The audience members were then exposed to snippets of culture from across the African continent through live musical performances of renditions of songs from Mali and Sudan. The crowd erupted into cheers and ear-splitting clapping at the song’s final note, and a proud motherly voice shouted, “That’s my Shadin!” from the front row, causing the on-stage vocalist to crack a wide, proud grin.
The event continued with spoken word and poetry readings from different ASU members, evoking with their words issues like media portrayal of Africa, the meaning of specific and pan-ethnic African identities, the African diaspora, the struggles of immigrating to the United States, and other important topics that deserve conversation and attention. The speakers’ poetic and passionate words were received by quick, successive snaps from the audience — a common method of showing appreciation and respect to a spoken word poet.
The loudest cheers and sounds of encouragement, however, came during the fashion show. ASU members strutted across the stage in colorful and stunning attire that was representative of several African regions, including Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia and others. The models caused the audience to erupt in shouts, hoots, hollers and smiles of appreciation as they two-stepped and shimmied across the stage to the drum-heavy music that accompanied the show. The performers’ clear and emanating confidence reflected the fact that they had been working on the show for three to four months.
The finale continued in a musical vein. Several ASU members, still clad in their cultural attire, performed a dance that they also performed at this year’s Multicultural Festival. The crowd was brought to their feet, clapping furiously as the performers took their final bow.
ASU’s first cultural show, which member Iman Barre hopes will become an annual event, left audience members perhaps a bit more aware about the African diaspora than when they first took their seats. Recently formed as an organization on campus in fall 2011, ASU hopes to thrive for many generations of students to come, and continue to create enlightening, fun and open spaces where diverse cultures can be explored and appreciated.