Connecting the black dots
Cynthia E. Griffin- | 8/20/2008, 5 p.m.
While it may look like just another festival on the outside, the African Marketplace and Cultural Faire is actually so much more.
It is a carefully planned and cultivated space where the world meets to recognize and celebrate the wealth of the African Diaspora.
It is a place where it is not unusual to see African drummers from Nigeria, Afro-Latin percussionists from Cuba, and African American musicians all performing within minutes of one another.
It is a place where the idea of viewing South Los Angeles, Watts and other traditionally Afro-centric spots in the City of Angels as major tourist draws, is not so far fetched.
This juxtapositioning did not happen by accident, said African Marketplace founder James Burks. It is the culmination of 23 years worth of effort to build partnerships and alliances.
" . . . It's our international relationships. We have built strong relationships with the African community in Los Angeles, with the Pacific Rim community in Los Angeles, with the Asian community in Los Angeles, with the European community, the Caribbean and Latin American communities in Los Angeles," explained Burks.
That is why you will see Latin jazz and Mariachi music at the Marketplace. He said the goal is to be very inclusive of the countries and areas with large communities of African descent such as Cuba, Vera Cruz (Mexico), Puerto Rico, Honduras and Costa Rica.
That international appeal is also why after more than two decades in operation, cultural groups knock on the door of this seven-day event seeking partnerships. The organization Tidawt is a case in point, noted Burks.
"They connected with us. We have a real global presence," Burks said. "When we're at home, you tend to take a lot of what is done in Los Angeles for granted. But not everyone has a Disneyland or a Universal Studios. Not everyone has an African Marketplace. So word gets out, and that is our biggest way of recruiting internationally. We can offer the Marketplace as a stop on their tour."
Tidawt, which means "together" was formed by Hasso Akotey in Niger in 1994, and performs a music played by the Tuareg. This is a nomadic, camel herding culture, which has dominated the Sahara desert for more than a thousand years. Their music is based on the rhythm of the camel, and in ancient days was used to tell stories and inspire the camels to dance at the festivals.
They are often referred to as "Blue Men of the desert" because their robes are dyed indigo blue and their skin reflects the color.
When the group was initially formed, it was part of a move to save the Tuareg culture that was falling victim to drought-caused famine and government oppression.
Today the Tuareg continue to fight for survival now against loss of their ancestral lands to uranium development.
Tidawt will perform Aug. 30 at the African Marketplace as part of a fundraising effort of the Nomad Foundation, a charitable organization that raises money for the Tuareg to underwrite the cost of the task of purchasing school supplies, food, buying animals, medicine, etc.
The secondary result of the collaboration with Tidawt is to dispel a Hollywood-perpetuated myth that portrays the Tuareg, when they are featured at all, as something other than people of African descent.
Similar partnerships have been forged in the past that have brought entrepreneurs and entertainers from Cote d' Ivoire, South Africa, the Caribbean, Cuba and Australia to the Marketplace.
Locally the partnerships include working with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and SportsExplorer to produce the annual Nation's Cup Tennis tournament (scheduled Aug. 23-24).
According to coordinator Ronita Elder, this event gives people of all ages an opportunity to compete in singles, doubles and mixed doubles play.
The tournament will also feature a special presentation of the USTA National junior team Aug. 24 at 4 p.m.
One of the newest partnerships in 2008 is the collaboration with Dance South Los Angeles. This organization, in part, owes its existence to Burks who helped coordinate a series of forums to discuss the state of the arts in South Los Angeles.
The goal of Dance South Los Angeles is multi-fold: On one hand it is to give voice to the underserved dancers, dance companies or dance providers in South L.A., but at the same time the organization intends to promote and celebrate dance in all its forms and cultural diversity.
At the African Marketplace, that goal will be reached during the group's "Can You Dance South L.A.," competition.
Open to people ages 6 to 70, the idea behind this competition, which was inspired by the hit television show "So You Think You Can Dance," is to encourage people skilled in a variety of different dance styles to come and strut their stuff, explained Leslie Sisson, one of the event coordinators.
People submitted audition tapes or participated in open auditions last Saturday, and then on Aug. 30, the winners in multiple categories will be decided based on their live performances at the African Marketplace.
Another partnership that speaks to this year's theme, which highlights Africa and its Mexican and Latin roots, is bringing together Black and Brown people is a full day of programming put together by popular local vocalist Medusa.
"James had approached me regarding a day, and I wanted to make it more than my own performance," explained Medusa, who said she has attended every African marketplace for the 15 years she has lived in Leimert Park. She will release her first ever single called "Califrame," during her day of performance. It's from her album "Gangsta Goddess," which she said refers to all of the women who have had to "gangster" their way into position but have kept their integrity while doing so.
"I wanted to involve all of the L.A. scene. We're spread everywhere, and there is such a vast amount of musicians in Los Angeles . . . they're in Hollywood, Silver Lake, and if we're all pulling at each other's audiences, I thought we should bring them all together under one ground."
The full day of programming Medusa has planned on Aug. 30 begins at 1 p.m. and is called Club Nappy. It's also a take-off on an event she has produced over the years at such Adams Boulevard night spots as Black to Jupiter and Fai Do Do.
"I do it once a month, and feature up and coming bands playing hip hop, salsa, rock and roll R & B; and it's people of color more than anything," explained Medusa, who describe her own musical sound as a combination of a female KRS One, Sly and Family Stone and Labelle blended together.
Club Nappy will feature an eclectic mixture of hip hop artists, R & B bands, reggae and dance hall performers as well as Floacist from the group Flowetry and L.A. Kill District, which is fronted by Akil from Jurassic Five.
Perhaps the ultimate partnership that the African Marketplace has built during its now 23-year history is its connection with its audience. It is something that Burks said the organization is relying on heavily this year.
"This has definitely been one of our more difficult years economically, but the African Marketplace is not alone in that respect," said Burks. "Organizations all over the city and the nation are canceling or postponing their events because of strained financial resources, reduced vendor support, fewer corporate dollars and other challenges."
The African Marketplace faced those same challenges, but has been able to continue because of loyal support from its staff, community partners, volunteers, key officials in the region, and a grassroots fundraising campaign that is tapping into what Burks called their most valuable resource--the audience.
"We're asking people to purchase a membership to the African Marketplace in addition to attending the event this year. That will help provide us with the foundational funding we need to finance the Cultural Faire," explained Burks, who noted that people often believe that the Marketplace is a totally government-sponsored event. But it is not, added the founder.
Local and state governments do provide some funding and in-kind services but these cover only a fraction of the cost to produce the seven-day event. The rest of the funding comes from corporate and community donors, and from fees generated at the gate.
And those gate fees, just like the admission fees charged at attractions like Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Knottsberry Farm, are a big part of the long-term plan Burks created to make the African Marketplace self-sustaining.
But again, Burks has not limited his vision to the sustainability of only his event. This Watts native is well aware that strategic alliances, creating economies of scale like the business incubator he has created in the African Marketplace headquarters office, and building the capacity of the businesses that participate in the Marketplace each year will eventually have a ripple impact on the economy in South Los Angeles.
"I grew up on 103rd Street. There was a large bike shop there, restaurants and a shoe shine box. I knew that I could talk to Mr. Jones about sweeping the sidewalks and emptying his trash (for a job)," Burks said.
Beyond employing young people to work for the Marketplace, the founder understands that by creating successful Afro-centric businesses, the opportunities for employment among youth of African descent increases. And that is ultimately the kind of positive partnerships that can make the community he grew up in economically more robust.
In addition to the partnerships that have produced the dance competition, tennis tournament and Club Nappy, the African Marketplace will as usual feature the Youth Village, the Cinema After Dark movie nights, Health Pavilion, a literary faire featuring authors singing and reading from their books and a reggae festival.
The African Marketplace continues Aug. 23, 24, 30, 31 and Sept. 1 at Rancho Cienega Recreation Center, 5001 Rodeo Road in Los Angeles.
Gates open each day at 10 a.m., and close at 9 p.m., and the cost of admission is $8 for adults, and $5 for children under 10 and seniors. There are special rates for groups of 10 or more.
For a complete list of the entertainment schedule, visit the Web site www.africanmarketplace.org.