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Seven African American people dance on a stage, hands clasped overhead, wearing traditional printed blouses and skirts. Black backdrop.

Ko-Thi’s adult ensemble performing “Wolosodon” during the fiftieth anniversary concert, JUBA-Lee in 2019.

Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

  • A Language of Rhythm Inspires Milwaukee’s African Diaspora
    The Legacy of “Mama Ferne” and the Ko-Thi Dance Company

    Se wo were fin a wo sankofa a yenkyi.

    It is not taboo to return and fetch what is in danger of being lost.

    In African cultures, the idea of deliberately going out to seek knowledge about one’s culture, of traveling through time and space to acquire communal knowledge, is ancient and deeply meaningful. The Akan people of Ghana call it sankofa. In Adinkra, a Ghanaian system of conveying wisdom through pictures, the spirit of this principle is expressed through the image of a bird with its feet facing forward and its head facing backward, neck craning to grasp a small egg.

    In my life as an African-descended person in the United States, sankofa is a spirit of reverent pursuit. I first experienced it on vacation, when I was six years old.

    Admittedly, I can’t remember the name of the man clapping the skin of the djembe who asked my older sister and me to dance. I can only recall the warm hallway lights in the Carnegie Museum of Art and our happy bodies: arms stretching parallel, curling in then reaching down like a meridian. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought we could fly home to Wisconsin this way. But instead, we drove home a few weeks later, chattering the whole way about our newfound fascination with African dance.

    Within a few months, my sister attended a performance at our local Racine Theater Guild and felt that familiar warmth again as the dancers matched the rhythm of the live drums. Excited, she brought the news home to me. The performers were from the Ko-Thi Dance Company. Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker-Bronson, known affectionately as “Mama” Ferne, founded the company in 1969—making it the oldest African American arts organization in the state. Ko-Thi is integral to Milwaukee, as it has allowed thousands of performers and audience members from Wisconsin and beyond to engage with other Milwaukee performance groups, museums, and community organizations.

    A woman with short gray hair and a bright yellow blouse speaks into a microphone on stage, smiling.
    Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker-Bronson greets the audience at the Ujima showcase in 2018.
    Photo by Dick Blau, courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

    Caulker’s father had died when she was a teenager. After his death, she and her mother relocated from his native Sierra Leone to Milwaukee, where her mother began a new job at the Marquette University library. Caulker discovered her passion for performance early. “Dance was something that was in my heart,” she says, in her warm and direct manner. “I went to the University of Wisconsin – Madison as a dance major and spent my first year there. Then in 1969, I got a chance to go to Ghana to work with the National Dance Company. I got to study with them—intimately—for six weeks.”

    After her return to the United States, her zeal didn’t fade. “In the sixties and seventies, man! There were a lot of Africans and companies coming through. That’s when Les Ballet Africains was touring every year in the United States.”

    Caulker and her colleagues saw this as an opportunity to bring teachers to Milwaukee, a city on the radar of few teaching artists due to the small population of Black people in the state—less than three percent in 1970, and still under seven percent in 2019. “I knew what my limitations were, in terms of what I knew. I knew there were huge distinctions between the African countries and the different styles. We would try to scoop up somebody who was in Chicago for a day for a master class. We just started building those relationships with people. Long-term friendships.” With every drum workshop and dance master class, Caulker fulfilled the promise of “Ko-Thi,” a name derived from the Shebro language of Sierra Leone, meaning “to gather” or “to go Black.”

    As the Ko-Thi Dance Company developed, Caulker deepened her knowledge. In 1971, she began teaching African dance and cultural history at UW–Milwaukee, where she is now professor emerita. Some of her more recent research focused on the dance and music that survived the arduous Middle Passage and were incorporated into the lives of enslaved Africans.

    “What has happened in this country is that the tribalism that was taught to Black people has created an environment of self-hate,” Caulker relates. “It has been 400 years of deconstructing a human spirit, human language, and culture. We almost have to deconstruct their construction of us. And the only way you do that is by institutionalizing who we are and being clear about who we are.”

    Four dancers on stage, with a backdrop of a hand-drawn village in brown tones.
    Trina Gandy and fellow Ko-Thi dancers
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company
    A person dances outdoors, wearing a thick grass skirt and cloth bandeau top. Another person plays a gourd percussion instrument.
    Ferme Caulker and musical director Tolokun Omokunde, 1970
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company
    Three percussionists and a dancer on stage. Black-and-white photo.
    Former musical directors Luther Gray, Dumah Saafir, and Tarence Spencer perform with a Ko-Thi dancer.
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

    For over half a century, Ko-Thi has produced dynamic and innovative performances, honoring both age-old traditions and modern African cultures. Caulker explains, “When Dumah Saafir was the musical director with me, we decided we didn’t want to be another folkdance company that took dances out of their cultural context and just slapped them on the proscenium. We wanted to tell stories that were about all the different diasporic stories with the same root.”

    “And that’s how Juba came about,” Caulker reveals.

    The fictional character Juba is an egungun. Egunguns, translating from Yoruba to “masquerade,” are representations of ancestral spirits embodied by masked performers. The masquerade dance originated in the Oyo region of the Yoruba Nigerian kingdom around the seventeenth century; dancers invoked these spirits in times of celebration, reflection, and even judgment. Caulker created her version of an egungun in the spirit of challenging the predominance of classical European art while honoring the contributions of Black artists to American culture.

    “We went into a lot of minute detail,” Caulker says, painting the picture of the performance Juba. The namesake performance is now Ko-Thi’s signature piece. “Even the way musicians come out, even what the musicians were going to wear, was a satirical play on symphonic music. That piece starts with the dancers standing statuesque, wearing tuxedo pants, vest, and matching top hats.”

    Meanwhile, the character Juba reclines on the top of a ladder as the drummers walk onto the stage. “They all have on blacktails and Kufi hats and white tennis shoes. Everything Juba does to start the orchestra playing is the way classical orchestras begin,” she recounts, pretending to tap a podium with an imaginary baton. “You hear all the instruments tune up, and it sounds like an elephant herd. Then, all of a sudden, you hear the drum break and, boom, the music starts.” Juba climbs down the ladder, dancing to animate the dancers, who then become “little Jubas.” Together, the female dancers pay homage to nineteenth-century tap extraordinaire William Henry Lane (aka Master Juba).

    A performance of Juba at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which included the first all-female drum unit to perform in New York City, helped put Ko-Thi on the map in 1984. “We were being funny and laughing at symphonic music, and then actually went on to perform a symphonic drum piece. We blew a lot of people away with Juba because they got the joke!” Though the dancing Juba was derived from traditional Nigerian masquerade, here, he is a character all his own—sophisticated, wily, and deeply ironic.

    A dance performance on stage: six dancers dressed in all white in the front, with a person all in red right behind them. To the side of the stage is a ladder.
    Ko-Thi’s fortieth anniversary production of Juba in 2009.
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

    “I feel that the masked character in Juba is timeless—is a time traveler,” Caulker explains, noting that Juba’s ladder is a means of transporting himself through space and time. According to Caulker, Ko-Thi’s egungun, who once donned a red pimp suit, “might be in a spacesuit one day!”

    It is no surprise that Caulker, the first dancer to perform as Juba, has inspired generations of young dancers and drummers. I myself was something of a “little Juba,” over fifteen years ago. Not long after we were first introduced to Ko-Thi, my mom dropped my sister and me off at our first African dance class.

    My mom dressed me in a pink, fluffy tutu. I was grossly misdressed. I looked around at all the other dancers, at their bare feet and black leotards, at the large pieces of multicolored cloth wrapped around their waists. I felt naked, which made it difficult to fully enjoy the strong rhythms bouncing off the djembe as an instructor taught us complex routines.

    At the end of the class, the teacher instructed my mother on where to get a lappa—pidgin for the skirt fastened across a dancer’s lap—in downtown Milwaukee. I’ll never forget walking past the bolts of fabric, choosing three patterns, and buzzing with anticipation for next week’s class the whole forty-five-minute ride home to Racine. Over the course of that year, my arms leaned as they sliced through the air, and the soles of my feet grew tough against the studio’s wood floor, until I was ready to audition for the youth company, Ton Ko-Thi.

    Ko-Thi artistic director DeMar Walker recalls his own experience of being selected as a trainee for the adult company. “I remember auditioning, and I was just overwhelmed when Mama Ferne and everyone decided to select me. The story ’til this day is that Tarence Spencer,” a former musical director, “came over to me, and he was like, ‘Congratulations, lil’ dude.’ He had to pick my jaw up because I was totally stunned. I never anticipated being where I am right now.”

    Walker took classes with the company as a pre-teen. “My mom and aunt were trying to figure out what to do with me for the summer, and Ko-Thi was there. I always say, I don’t remember what I learned that summer. I just remember those drums, being in that space, and learning the movements—just being in awe of it all.” His family moved to Arkansas, but after college, he returned to Milwaukee, where he became a company member and, later, the artistic director.

    A man, shirtless with red and yellow pants, plays a hand drum that hangs between his legs, smiling on stage.
    Musical director Kumasi Allen describes the process of becoming a master teacher: “This isn’t somebody who’s been playing for ten years. This is somebody who has devoted their whole lives to be in this one role. You humbly go to that person to ask for a quarter of the information they’ve learned, and you expand on it. But you have to be able to sit at their feet first.” (Vibrations, 2017)
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company
    On a theater stage, a woman in a long purple dress hands a wisp of tan-colored horsehair to a man.
    At the JUBA-Lee fiftieth anniversary concert, artistic director DeMar Walker receives horsetail from Mama Ferne. Irukere, typically comprised of horsehair, is an adornment and tool within the Nigerian Yoruba culture that represents leadership, prestige, and power.
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

    When the time came to develop JUBA-Lee, the concert celebrating the company’s fiftieth anniversary in 2019, Walker and his colleagues wanted to pay tribute to the company’s legacy. But like any good intention, it came with challenges.

    Walker admits that he, musical director Kumasi Allen, and associate artistic director Sonya Thompson “were tired of coming into the studio and feeling like we were just supposed to feed everybody. We had tons of people in the company who danced jazz and were familiar with the dance styles popular throughout the Diaspora. We were just like, ‘why don’t y’all come and teach us some stuff?’”

    As the company dancers began showcasing their knowledge of jazz, tap, and dance styles from the Caribbean and West Africa, like Azanto and Shoki, Walker describes how he could almost feel the fanciful hands of Juba over his head.

    “I came to Kumasi one day and was like, you know, I’m peeping what’s happening.” But rather than remounting Juba for the semicentennial celebration, the company evoked the spirit of the time-traveling egungun in a different way. “I had this idea that we should start with West Africa and move towards modern day. Then, I told Kumasi one day, ‘how about we work it backwards?’ We started closer to modern day and we worked it back to West Africa, with the idea of reclaiming and honoring ourselves as Black folk. As people of the diaspora.”

    The musical director responded, “That’s fly, Doc.”

    Ko-Thi leaders couldn’t have anticipated that one year later the state of race relations in the United States would turn dire. Much as it did in the 1960s and ’70s, the energy around Black liberation and Black autonomy has sparked a renewed interest in diasporic art forms. Ko-Thi is open to anyone, but becoming a skilled performer is about more than “quick feet and fast hands.”

    “You have to be aware,” Walker explains, reflecting on his own experiences as a student and instructor. “Is this something I want to do because it’s cool and just center in all of it? Or is it something where I want to be a student?” This check on one’s motivations is critical not only to a performer’s development, but also to the survival of African performance in the United States. “Whatever it is that you receive, you now have that spiritual knowledge to be able to pass onto someone else.”

    On a theater stage, ten child and adult dancers dressed in white and red skirts and white tank tops form a loose circle.
    Associate artistic director Sonya Thompson and the Ko-Thi adult ensemble performs Ibo Generations with the youth company, Ton Ko-Thi.
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

    Even as a young dancer, I knew that I was inheriting a spiritual and multicultural tradition, but it wasn’t always glamorous. During my later years in the youth company, our evening rehearsals were held in a community center cafeteria. Company members would enter the converted hall—its tables pushed aside and its floors swept for the sake of our bare feet—wearing the “street clothes” we wore to school. Inevitably, we would get a stern lecture from our instructors for wearing the wrong attire. “You wouldn’t do this if this were ballet,” they would remind us. “You wouldn’t even be allowed on the floor!”

    We practiced three times a week, with more rehearsals added leading up to performances. There was never an excuse for bad technique. A position fundamental to many West African dance forms involves having your feet hip-width apart, with your knees bent and your spine parallel to the floor. Our instructors would walk between the rows of dancers and push down any curved spines until they were flat as a tabletop.

    My sister and I left the company when I hit middle school. The hour-long round trip had gotten the better of us, but leaving cost me more than a straight spine. My confidence dropped as I integrated into other activities where no one looked like me or listened to the music I listened to or ate the food I was raised on. I nearly stopped dancing altogether, not feeling comfortable in Western dance forms with my dark, muscular body. I forgot how to speak the only other language I knew.

    Dancers and musicians work closely together to create a “shared language” of rhythm. “Each dance movement has its own rhythm,” Kumasi Allen explains. “It’s a language that we speak.”

    Allen and I were in Ton Ko-Thi at the same time, and it inspires me, seeing him develop new ways of communicating through movement. “There may be a moment where I’ll just be sitting back, and I’m watching Mama Ferne dance, and I’ll say, ‘I like this movement that she did.’ So, I’ll say ba-coom-coom, ba-coom-coom, because she’s doing, bop-bop-bop, bop-bop-bop, with the feet and hand.”

    “Maybe in another dance, DeMar is doing some crazy tricks, and we’re seeing it,” says Allen, explaining how the drummers decide where to place the drum breaks, unique rhythms that tell the dancer when to start, stop, or change their movements. “Maybe he’ll spin around, and we’ll say, ‘the break is going to stop there and highlight what he’s doing.’”

    According to Caulker, a symbiotic relationship between music and movement is present in all African dance forms, whether drums are present or not.

    “It’s a rhythmic interplay between the rhythm of the body as it moves through the air, and the rhythm of the body as it moves with other bodies, and the rhythm of the body as it interplays in the ground,” she says. “What sounds do the feet make? Because the rhythm that the foot makes is so integral in African dance that they forget about it.”

    Sankofa teaches us that we can’t forget. If we do, we run the risk of losing not only our own identity, but also the lifeblood of a people. The act of remembering is an open-palmed practice, a heat rising. “I think it’s about holding,” Caulker imparts. “Knowledge is something that is not in a container that you can carry around in a box. Knowledge is something that feeds off of its givingness.”

    That givingness has helped Ko-Thi survive leadership changes, financial hardships, and the loss of company members. “I know that I am on a spiritual path,” reflects Caulker, now seventy-four. “It always brings me exactly what is needed. For example, I was doing a concert and I couldn’t get any of the drummers who had left the company to play with me. I ended up playing with two white men and a laptop, and my drums. The company was at its lowest low moment. We had put the show together, and I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing? Why am I continuing to do this?’ Then I looked out into the audience, and there was Kumasi watching the show, and I said, ‘I’ll be damned,’” she says, laughing. “I knew right then, before he said anything, that it was spiritual that he was sitting there.”

    Allen had decided to attend the performance, though he was only home for a few days to receive a service medal. “At the end of my term in the military, I had three choices.” He could deploy again, accept a high-paying job in California, or return to Milwaukee. “While I was gone, I was super angry,” Allen says, candidly. “One day, in California, I heard a drum. I started feeling joy again.” Then, he received a phone call informing him that his baba, his drumming mentor, was sick.

    “He used to tell me, ‘You’re still my son, but you owe me a drum.’ The drum was symbolic because, in order to play a master’s drum, you had to really sit at their feet. No one else can touch that drum unless they bestow that drum upon you. I ended up popping his drum, and I didn’t know what to do.” Rather than accepting the replacement drum from his protege, Allen’s teacher instructed him to repay his debt by teaching others.

    While in Milwaukee, Allen visited Walker and Thompson in the studio. The rehearsal was bare, with only the pair, one kid, and another drummer. “So, I stayed in Milwaukee,” says Allen, simply. “This art form is an intergenerational love that’s continuously connecting people. Out of all of this, my goal is simply to teach and pass on the legacy that my ancestors have passed onto me.”

    Before every Ko-Thi showcase, the performers warm the stage with this Nigerian Yoruba hymn.

    Ise oluwa, kole baje oh

    God’s work can never be spoiled.

    Behind the drawn curtains, the dancers and drummers stand shoulder to shoulder, carrying the spirit of sankofa in their united palms as they prepare their spirits and bodies for performance.

    Caulker explains the spirit of this moment best: “This art form survived the Middle Passage and the atrocities that occurred in the New World, 400 years of Black people not being allowed to play drums and speak our languages. You have to ask, ‘Why did we manage to survive all of this?’ Part of it comes through a tradition of not holding, of not putting it under lock and key. You can’t do that with this form. The more you give it, the more you have to own it. The more you give it, the more it comes back to you full circle.”

    Three women in strapless white blouses and skirts carry shallow baskets overhead, walking through the grass with a pond in the background.
    Early Ko-Thi members perform a dance related to the harvest, 1970.
    Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

    Amber Long is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She studied city and regional planning, ethnic and American studies, and creative writing at The Ohio State University.

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