10 Questions with Christa "Fatoumata" Sylla, Director and Founder of Nan Nkama Pan-African Drum and Dance Ensemble
For more than a decade Christa "Fatoumata" Sylla has shared her passion for cultural dance with Jacksonville, Florida. Sylla serves as the Director of Nan Nkama Pan-African Drum and Dance Ensemble, an organization that she originally founded in 2003 as Culture Moves 101. The troupe made their debut performance at the World of Nations Celebration in 2005, an annual event that is occurring this weekend in Jacksonville (Friday, March 3 through Sunday, March 5).
Sylla has also worked as an instructor and choreographer, collaborating with arts and humanities non-profit organizations, including Jacksonville Centre of the Arts and Cathedral Arts Project. Through her career in the arts, Sylla has studied under and performed with several performance companies, including Lajo Theatre of African and Caribbean Dance and the Nia Dance Ensemble. Sylla has also taught master classes on dance at Lavilla School of the Arts, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, and Florida State College of Jacksonville (FSCJ).
Sylla wrote and directed Mande!: The Evolution from Barefeet to Blue Jeans in 2005. Mande! made its debut in 2006 at Boomtown Subterranea. In 2007, the company received a grant to perform the production at the University of North Florida (UNF). In 2016 Mande! The Evolution celebrated its 10 year anniversary with a performance at Lavilla School of the Arts that included an updated script and more styles of afrodance and diverse choreography.
10 Questions with Nan Nkama Pan-African Drum and Dance Ensemble
What is the mission of your organization?
Our mission statement reads: “To enlighten and empower the Northeast Florida community with the music and dance of Mande and the Diaspora.”
Mande is the term used to refer to the Western region of Africa and many of the ethnic groups therein. Through study we have seen how elements of Mandeng traditions have shown up in various parts of the world. Our mission is to shed light on that golden thread and give cultural education through music and dance.
When was your organization formed and how has it grown?
The organization was originally Culture Moves 101 and was spawned from Community Education classes at Terry Parker High School in 2003. It was in 2004 that the classes went independent with the troupe making its debut performance at the World of Nations in 2005. We have greatly grown in the diversity of our repertoire mostly due to the travels and studies of the director.
After traveling to Guinea, West Africa in 2007 to study, she was inspired to rename the group Nan Nkama (NAHN-KHAHMA), a phrase in the Susu language meaning, “born with it”. As our repertoire expanded, our name went from Nan Nkama West African Drum and Dance, to Pan-African Drum and Dance. To date, we have two original productions under our belt: Mande! The Evolution from Bare Feet to Blue Jeans in 2006 and Mande! The Evolution: The Ten-Year Anniversary Show in 2016.
What strategies are in place within your organization for you to engage your audiences?
The social media explosion has been a great help to our promotion and exposure. We have a schedule in place where different members keep our pages active and audiences engaged daily. We also hold community workshops, sometimes with special guests, twice per month, as well as free beginner-friendly classes at the Main Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library in partnership with Jax Makerspace.
Why is art and culture important?
In a nutshell, art and culture make us a better society by beautifully exposing us to others’ uniqueness. For whatever reason, music, dance, and art tend to be able to bypass judgements that may come up if these things were just presented in conversation. Perhaps because the part of us that wants to argue, our egos if you will, is partially silenced in the face of beauty. Art is important because we are able to have the difficult conversations without having the difficult conversations. Art is how we tell our different stories, and it is difficult not to see another’s humanness when you know their story.
What’s your organization’s next major milestone and is this milestone part of a long-term plan?
We are currently planning an encore of Mande! The Evolution as well as another original production. This is part of the long term plan of producing larger scale productions more often.
What would you like to see in the arts and cultural community in Jacksonville?
It would be beautiful to see one all-inclusive venue which also includes a professional stage where local artists can showcase their work. These places do exist but are often not cost effective for smaller community organizations, or they are conducive to one type of discipline, not all. It would also be wonderful to see more collaborative events with multiple disciplines.
Also, part of our mission at Nan Nkama is to highlight and present positive images and presentations of black art and blackness as a whole and also to show its diversity. This is very important for our social climate, particularly now. We would love to see more of that in Jacksonville and beyond, as a norm; not just restricted to Black History Month or Black Music Month.
Does your organization partner with other organization(s)?
We partner with two nonprofits: Save Africa Global, Inc, and African Arts and Culture Jacksonville on some events. Collaboration is something we love to participate in and believe it is necessary to keep the arts alive.
What is a program offered by your organization that you’d like to highlight? Additionally, what is an organization that you think more people need to know about?
Right now, we would love for as many people as possible to take advantage of our classes at the Jacksonville Public Library's Main Branch on Saturday mornings at 11:00 am. They are a great way for the community to get exposed to different aspects of afro-dance so that they are less likely to be overwhelmed by our workshops, which usually include live musicians, etc. We really love this series because people who do not usually dance, or even think about dancing as recreation, join us and find they love it. It has been wonderful to see families trying out the classes together. Of course, we want to also highlight our community workshops on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month, the 2nd including a special guest with a different form of afro-dance. Our next event is March 11, featuring Aboubacar Soumahwho will do a special drum class for women.
Kreative Kids and Beyond was founded by and is directed by one of our members Lisa Scott-Warren and her husband Nico Warren, who also drums for us, in Clay County. This is a wonderful recreation program for children which also includes free community drum and dance classes on Monday evenings at Orange Park Performing Arts Academy.
How do you stay up to date with the art and cultural happenings both nationally and in Jacksonville?
Lots of research. Networking and associating with other artists of different disciplines. Attending arts events. Joining community arts organizations. Local publications such as EU Jacksonville, Folio Weekly, etc., are also helpful. It can be a challenge, especially when we have a heavy performance schedule as we did last month, however, we have enough members who actively keep their ear to the street for arts happenings.
How can others get involved with your organization?
To stay abreast of our happenings, they can join our community email list by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow our Facebook page and Instagram account. We generally seek volunteer help for our larger events and are currently seeking a booking agent. We also periodically hold auditions for performance troupe members.