by Jordan Green
An artist-in-residence program bridges gaps between Latino and African-American students at a Winston-Salem charter school.
The two fourth-grade classes at Carter G. Woodson Middle School, an energetic and engaged group of African-American and Latino youngsters, settled in a large circle in the school library. Oseiku Dañel Díaz, a percussionist and teacher, began to expound on the diverse history and culture of the Caribbean and Latin America.
Just as there are different tribes in North America, he said, there are different indigenous groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, adding that it’s important not to lump all people together. He said that while Spanish language is the common denominator for many people in the region, it’s not true for everyone: Portuguese is the dominant language of Brazil, and French is spoken in Haiti.
Díaz is a veritable encyclopedia of cultural information.
He talked about carnival, celebrated around the Caribbean rim.
“It has its origins in Roman culture,” Díaz said. “People of color were not allowed to participate, so they developed their own celebrations and brought their own culture to it.”
He referenced the New Orleans expression of carnival: Mardi Gras.
“If you go to New Orleans, you’re going to see African people dressed as Indians,” Díaz said. “People think it’s crazy. But the Indians helped the Africans in the Americas, so they’re venerated.”
Shifting from the northern rim of the Caribbean to the south, he held up a drum painted in the black, red, yellow and white colors of the Brazilian samba band Ile Aiye. He noted that the band’s name comes from two Yoruba words, from Nigeria, that literally mean “house of the world.”
“They set the role model for all the samba groups,” he said.
As Díaz started pounding out a samba beat on a surdo, a large bass drum, with the bell-like agogo and repinique attached to the side, Jubelin Ramirez strode out from behind a row of bookcases, resplendent in blue, with a towering feather headdress and matching sequined anklets. Ramirez, a professional dancer from Venezuela who is now based in Asheville, strutted around the circle, throwing her arms up triumphantly. One of the girls started clapping and laughing. The girls beamed and high-fived Ramirez as she passed, while some of the boys covered their eyes and looked away. By the end of the number most of the children were howling with laughter.
“Is the music happy or sad?” Díaz asked. “It’s happy, right? It’s a celebration. There are some places where people will come and drag you out of your house, and everyone is partying in the street.”
Part of an artist-in-residence program by the Hispanic Arts Initiative, Díaz and Jubelin, along with a second dancer, Maggie Fernandez, highlighted the African influence on Latino culture last week — the capstone of a three-week program that culminated in a concert open to the public on March 20. Earlier sessions provided an overview of cultural influences in Latin America and indigenous heritage.
Funding for the program came from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County’s Wells Fargo Arts-in-Education Grant.
The Hispanic Arts Initiative selected Carter G. Woodson for the program because the student body is roughly split between African-American and Latino students, and the community served by the school is undergoing a demographic transition, Executive Director Maria Sanchez-Boudy said.
The connection between the nonprofit and the school was initially forged when school Principal Ruth Hopkins decided to bring the students to the Hispanic Arts Initiative’s annual Punto de Vista exhibit at the Delta Arts Center, Sanchez-Boudy said.
“We think music and dance is a good, positive platform to address cultural issues,” Sanchez-Boudy said. “When Ruth asked the students what they thought of each other’s culture, they were parroting their parents. The same stereotypical comments their parents make, they parrot. But here the barriers come down because they’re having fun.”
As exultant and demonstrative as Jubelin’s samba dance was, the next dance, as performed by Maggie Fernandez, gave the students a whole different flavor. Dressed in a simple blouse and light, flowing skirt, Fernandez showed off the tight steps of the more constrained merengue. Fernandez, a Winston-Salem resident whose heritage is Dominican and Cuban, said that although the origins of merengue are murky, a telling of its story explains the steps.
“The legend is merengue started when African slaves came to the Dominican Republic and they had to cut cane,” she said. “They were chained together at the ankles so they had to do this step.”
Some of the girls twirled in imitation. One of them said, “I like your dress,” and another grabbed a handful of the soft fabric, as Fernandez spirited past to the improvised dressing room behind the library shelves.
Díaz told the students that the drumbeat was powerful, explaining that the African slaves overthrew their French colonial masters under the rule of Napoleon in 1803, establishing their own republic.
“The English colonies banned all hand drums,” he said. “That’s why you don’t find too many hand drums in the music of Trinidad and Jamaica.”
Díaz, who grew up in New York City as the child of parents from Puerto Rico, has been playing music practically all his life.
“My father gave me a set of bongos when I was in the single digits,” he said, adding that he studied under the legendary Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, whose song “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba” was adapted by Santana. Díaz, who lives in Winston-Salem, has performed and recorded with artists as varied and illustrious as Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Cocker, Ashford & Simpson and Fred Wesley.
Holding Fernandez as an example of someone who has been dancing from an early age, Díaz told the students it’s important to learn from someone who has lived the culture instead of just studied it in a book.
Speaking to a group of third-graders earlier in the afternoon, he encouraged them to learn about the world.
“You all are young,” Díaz said. “You have a lot of choices. But before you become an adult the best thing for you to do is get a passport. You can Google it, but there’s nothing like going to a place, tasting the food and hearing the music — experiencing the culture firsthand.”
The African-American and Latino students who experienced the Hispanic Arts Initiative’s artists in residence program couldn’t help but learn that the culture of Latin America is diverse, and African influences are everywhere.
At 1:45, it was time for the fourth graders to go back to their classes, but Díaz wanted to impart one last lesson.
“Learn how to love yourself,” he said. “That’s the first step in loving others. Find out who you are. Everyone has their own story — something that makes you different and special. You also have things in common with each other. You should never feel bad about who you are. And you should never make fun of others for being different.”