Recently, I attended a performance at the Timms Center for Arts.
The performances also doubled as a story telling workshop where the two guest performers, Chunga Otiende and Tololwa Mollel shared tips on how to tell a good story.
Since the title of the workshop was ‘A Story Evening from East Africa’, both performers incorporated elements of their East African culture into their story telling.
The first performer was Chunga who is an award-winning story performer from Kenya. He told a very intriguing story based on meat. Now, I know that sounds very strange and trust me as a listener I was slightly perplexed at first. But I enjoyed his use of audience participation and involvement by coaxing us to finish the end of his sentences, actively recruiting the audience in the story and into the role of story-teller. He showed me that voices matter, most importantly the voice of the majority is very crucial.
Interestingly, Chunga introduced music into his story by playing a harmonica. It created a calm and soothing atmosphere and transported the audience from a packed theater room to sitting cosily listening to childhood stories (or something like that!). Although, this was also contrasted with more fast paced story-telling which included dancing to tunes played by the wonderful percussionist Robert Kpogo (Ghana born, Togo raised and Canada residing percussionist, who is currently teaching at The University of Alberta). The pace of his narrative was driven along by Kpogo’s eclectic style on the drums and wooden xylophone.
The second performer, Tololwa is actually an alumni of The University of Alberta and is a Tanzanian-Canadian playwright and author of several children’s books. Now, his story-telling style was a bit tamer than Chunga’s nevertheless every bit as exciting. An interesting style he used which was unlike the first narrative was his use of different voices to represent the different characters in the story. He generally adopted a third person narrator perspective which he delivered in a calm reflective tone, almost reminiscent of the voice of grandparents telling a story of the ‘good, old days’. I particularly enjoyed his repetition of the same song. It acted as a theme throughout the narrative which was useful in carrying the audience along because it was easily recognizable but also it was catchy and the audience got a chance to learn the song. This was evident as sometime later on, audience members started singing along the lyrics of the song as well.
So while this was great artistically, it also served a secondary purpose. This was a great reminder of the importance of narrative in freedom of expression and also in the appreciation and celebration of different cultures. It seems the state of affairs with our continental neighbors seems to be getting worse on the daily. Before the introduction of the performers we were welcomed by a few words from renowned poet, Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Walls’. Upon a quick glance through the poem, I initially thought it was in support of building walls and thus segregation. However, upon a secondary read I stumbled upon this line which I think raises a very important issue:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.”
– Robert Frost (Mending Walls)
Beyond the political connotations that may be assumed upon reading his statement, to me this can relate to us as human beings. We are so quick to put up barriers and walls in order to protect ourselves from others and even sometimes in order to protect others from ourselves. However, would it not serve us better to ponder on “the what” we are trying to secure form the world and work to deal with whatever that might be rather than focusing on “the whom” we are walling out. Let me tell you, the theater hall was absolutely packed to the brim. I arrived slightly late thinking surely there would be enough space. I barely got a seat (in fact it was a crowded seat at the very back of the hall), but I was intrigued to see that the audience consisted of a diversity of ethnicities including African, Asian and Canadians.
This indicates that beautiful things can happen when we let down walls. Now, I am absolutely not in a place to advise on political matters, but looking at the natural disasters that have been affecting countries recently I think the best we can do as a people is to try and support each other and share each other’s stories. With the high media coverage it brings to mind something that both Chunga and Tololwa talked about during the Q and A session at the end; that is the role of stories to convey a message that correlates with the audience and relevant to society at large.
Therefore, when unfortunate events such as Hurricane Irma happen I think it’s important for us to really stop and think about how we are using our voices to impact and positively influence those around us but also what story will be told of us when we are no more.