Out of Africa

You might be tempted to give Ugandan-born Namu Lwanga one of those trendy hyphenated career titles, like "singer-dancer-actress-musician." But that kind of job description still isn't enough to sum up her accomplishments.

Perhaps "Renaissance woman" is the most accurate label for Lwanga, who is the founder and director of the Kayaga! of Africa Dance Troupe. The internationally recognized group will make its Western U.S. debut at the Chandler Center for the Arts this Sunday evening. Notably, the only other American venue hosting Kayaga! is the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Lwanga's lengthy résumé includes mastering native African string and percussion instruments, producing and singing on three CDs of modern African music released on her own label, writing and performing plays, and creating award-winning audio and videotapes of her storytelling.

Her experiences as a dancer and choreographer began during grade school in Uganda, where she learned traditional dances. Throughout her youth, Lwanga perfected her technique in a number of dance groups and competitions. Eventually, she became an expert choreographer of both modern and traditional dance, traveling around the world to perform and teach. In 1993, Lwanga founded Kayaga! of Africa as an all-female group, but it went co-ed in 1995. Since then, the troupe's popularity has soared from England to India.

Although the Valley has seen performances by groups from the southern and western regions of Africa, this will be the first time the area's gotten such a major representation of culture from east and central Africa. "There's a void, and we really try to fill it," promoter Mosali Mansa says. And he adds that he hopes the event will pull together people from the Valley's own diverse African community, whose members have come here from all parts of the continent.

Kayaga's 90-minute show will incorporate storytelling, traditional music performed on indigenous African instruments, and colorful native costumes with a series of regional dances, including bakisimba, a waist dance from the royal court of the Baganda ethnic group's Lubiri palace. Other musical themes will span the range of common experiences in east and central Africa, including adolescence and initiation rites, marriage, fishing and funerals. To complete the tour, Kayaga! will give the audience a glimpse of modern dance that reflects how young Africans live immersed in both African and Western sensibilities.

All in all, what could be more exciting for lovers of dance and foreign culture than sinking back into a cozy theater seat instead of a stifling airplane seat? This is a transcontinental trip without the jet lag.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig