Zohar Israel not only trains young musicians and dancers, he hires them to perform in his troupe — which will be putting in an appearance at this year’s Goombay! Festival.
“I’m the one healing the wounds,” said the director of the New Orleans-based Free Spirit African Drummers, Dancers and Stilt Walkers in a recent interview. “The only hope is to get [at-risk youth] into drumming, to share the culture. If we don’t do something positive, they’ll tear this place up.”
That’s a philosophy shared by local mentor and community leader John Hayes, president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. He saw a similar need for a positive influence in Hillcrest, one of the area’s largest African-American neighborhoods. In 1977, Hayes made a daring move, establishing the Hillcrest Enrichment Program in a location pinpointed as having the highest crime rate in Asheville.
“There was a great need in this community that the children understand their uniqueness,” he explained. “I added a cultural and educational component to the program.”
Hayes doesn’t like to place labels on the enrichment program’s various offshoots, preferring to view it all as one polyphonic whole. But he does concede that it was the extracurricular activities, such as sports and music, that caught the kids’ attention. So Hayes dreamed up the Hillcrest High-Steppin’ Majorettes and Drum Corps — now a 60-member outfit.
“It’s a throwback to a time when we had predominantly black bands,” notes Hayes. “Here, people still talk about the Stephens-Lee Marching Band [from Asheville’s all-black high school in the days before integration]. Where white high-school bands used military moves, black bands had a different routine — the same kind of routine you’d see at Carnival in Brazil.”
The drum corps is just that — a band focused solely on percussive instruments. As Hayes points out, the crowd along a parade route hears that cadence long before the band appears, and the rhythm creates a sense of excitement and anticipation. Then the group comes high-stepping into view, knees lifting and toes pointed. The majorettes break into routines in the street, amid a swell of noise and synchronized motion that prompts even the most pomp-weary bystander to cheer.
Of course, the band also proved to be a big draw for the enrichment program, giving Hayes the leverage he needed to require participants to maintain at least C grades, and preferably A’s and B’s. “That’s what we equate with being successful,” he insists. “Too bad the school system doesn’t do that. But [the Hillcrest Enrichment Program] was about using the band to get students to understand the importance of education and culture.”
Culture is also an inspiration for Israel, who discovered stilt dancing in Washington, D.C., back in the ’80s. “I felt that was my spirit,” he remembers. It was also the impetus for his drum-and-dance group, which he formed in 1986.
It’s this connection to African heritage that Israel passes on by training new musicians and dancers. But he’s not exactly sitting on his hands waiting for stilt-walking wannabes to come to him. Israel spends a large part of his time taking his art into the schools and summer camps around New Orleans, reaching out to children who need mentors.
“You put on the mask and the hat, and when you get up in the air, automatically everything changes,” says Israel. He’s not just talking about taking on a character, however, but about actually becoming the spirit of the stilt dance.
Both inspiring and terrifying to the uninitiated, stilt dancing traces its roots to Ghana. The performers hide their identities behind elaborate African masks and fanciful hats. Then they take to the skies on wooden stilts, somehow managing not only to stay upright but to move in rhythm to the musicians’ percussive grooves. If it weren’t for the masks, the characters might seem as benign as any carnival clown — but these dancers are far from modern jesters. Easily recognizable at Goombay!, the multicultural celebration held on The Block (downtown Asheville’s historically African-American business district), the masks are haunting creations representing such African spirits as Chakaba (the entertainer) and the devious “Country Devil.”
“People I’ve talked to about this said [African slaves] saw these spirits coming off the ships,” Israel reveals. “People drew what they saw and passed [the designs] down.”
He adds, “I call it the spirit because whatever person wears the hat and mask, that’s [the dancer’s] spirit.”
No strangers to spirit themselves, the Hillcrest High-Steppers boast a bevy of awards (including the Governor’s Award and the Martin Luther King Foundation Award) as well as 27 years of pleasing crowds. And they never tire of performing at their old stomping grounds.
“Goombay! is home,” proclaims Hayes. “It’s one of the few [events] where they get to perform at home. They love interacting with the people.”
Israel agrees. “We love going places where people appreciate what we do.”
From role models to artists’ models
It was author Toni Morrison who first referred to African-Americans as “New World Africans” — an appellation that inspired Charlotte-based artist Jerry Taliaferro. “It echoed a belief that I had long held: that African-Americans are a new people, born of an American experience of survival, struggle and triumph,” he explains. Armed with that idea and a camera, Taliaferro set out to illustrate the theory using women serving in leadership positions throughout the Asheville community. These real-life models include Tangela Ballard, program coordinator for the YWCA’s MotherLove Program; Asheville City Council member Terry Bellamy; retired teacher and dancer Florence Green; Asheville City Schools Principal Diana Wilson, and many others. The exhibit, Women of a New Tribe, shows at the YMI Cultural Center’s upper gallery through Saturday, Sept. 11.
Catch the Free Spirit African Drummers, Dancers and Stilt Walkers and the Hillcrest High-Steppin’ Majorettes and Drum Corps at Goombay!, a celebration of Afro-Caribbean heritage happening Friday, Aug. 27 through Sunday, Aug. 29 on The Block (Eagle and Market streets in downtown Asheville). Expect food, crafts, children’s activities and live music, including The Barkays (’70s and ’80s R&B); jazz acts Stanford Baird, Jazz-Ti-Zonic and Sweet Dreams; and reggae acts Dub Axxess and Zion Project. Festival hours are noon to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday. For more information or updates on performance times, call the YMI Cultural Center (252-4614) or visit www.ymicc.org/goombay.